The Big Box

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In her first illustrated book for children, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author Toni Morrison introduces three feisty children who show grown-ups what it really means to be a kid.

Because they do not abide by the rules written by the adults around them, three children are judged unable to handle their freedom and forced to live in a box with three locks on the door.

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In her first illustrated book for children, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author Toni Morrison introduces three feisty children who show grown-ups what it really means to be a kid.

Because they do not abide by the rules written by the adults around them, three children are judged unable to handle their freedom and forced to live in a box with three locks on the door.

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Editorial Reviews

Horn Book
The Morrisons' long poem about the need to let children be "free" relies on a heavy-handed irony ("So they gave little Patty an understanding hug / And put her in a big brown box. / It has carpets and curtains and bean bag chairs / But the door has three big locks") that is predictably countered by a clich'd voice of childhood wisdom ("I know you are smart and I know that you think / You are doing what is best for me. / But if freedom is handled just your way / Then it's not my freedom or free.") This scenario is repeated for a number of children (and stanzas), and the lack of either thematic or narrative development makes the book tedious. Potter's pictures are big and nice, but they just don't have a lot of work to do beyond showing glum-eyed children in locked rooms (oddly, the locks are on the inside, subverting the entire thrust of the text), or happy-faced children gamboling in nature. Kids faced with reading this book might be well advised to take its advice and go out and play instead. r.s.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nobel laureate Morrison's debut book for children unfortunately shows little of the childlike perspective that so masterfully informs The Bluest Eye. This enigmatic tale, written in verse, is inspired by a story made up by Morrison's then nine-year-old son. The opening scene depicts two girls and a boy who live in a "big brown box" with a door that has "three big locks." The trio have been sent there by adults who think they "can't handle their freedom." Suburban Patty has "too much fun in school all day" ("When we pledged to the flag, she'd spoil it"); urban Mickey writes his name on mailbox lids and plays handball next to a sign that forbids the game; and country girl Liza Sue lets the chickens keep their eggs and feeds honey to the bees. Each child, when told that he or she has overstepped the bounds, counters with the identical unchildlike response: "I know you are smart and I know that you think/ You're doing what is best for me./ But if freedom is handled just your way/ Then it's not my freedom or free." The parents, never visible visiting the box, nonetheless leave behind plenty of parting gifts (e.g., "Blimpies and Frisbees... and Matchbox cars that go"). In the final scene, the children, inexplicably, easily clamber over the sides of the big brown box to freedom. Potter's (Gabriella's Song) handsome illustrations in a postmodern folk-art style possess an austere simplicity, effectively marking the contrast to the adults' commercial bribes littering the floor. But ultimately the tale is mundane; the social commentary on childhood, freedom and the tendency of parents to give children things instead of time and attention seems aimed more at adult readers than children. Ages 8-up. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
In what PW called "a social commentary on childhood," two girls and a boy live in a "big brown box" with a door that has "three big locks"; they have been sent there by adults who think they "can't handle their freedom." Ages 8-up. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
When I began Toni Morrison's The Big Box, I dis not come with an open mind; on the book jacket, she tells how she took a story devised by her son Slade who "let his mother impose the rhyme." Generally, when new writers use rhyme, the work suffers. This is not true in Morrison's case and though the book is really for adults, it works until the end. The heroes of the story are four unique children who are imprisoned in a large box because they trouble adults. At the story's end, they spring from this box without having taken any action, and there's no explanation of how the release occurred. The only explanation is one of my Forbidden Four...deus ex machina. 1999, Hyperion, Ages 9 to 12, $19.99. Reviewer: Susie Wilde
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-Morrison sets to rhyme a story her son created when he was nine-years-old. When three children make their parents, neighbors, or teachers nervous-Patty talks in the library, Mickey plays handball where he shouldn't, and Liza Sue lets the chickens on her farm keep their eggs-the adults decide that the youngsters can't handle their freedom and so choose to have them confined. A literal reading of the text says that they put them in a big box, but some will infer that they were institutionalized. Their parents visit on Wednesday nights and provide plenty of material gifts, but "the door only opens one way." Potter's moody, quirky, somber-colored illustrations, similar to those she created for Candace Fleming's Gabriella's Song (Atheneum, 1997), interpret the story quite literally, picturing nearly every object mentioned in the text, leaving little to readers' imaginations. The box varies between a furnished room with the three locks on the door referred to in the text, to the cardboard box on the cover, from which, at the end of the story, the three break free to recapture their personal freedom. This is a book that will have a hard time finding an audience: it looks like a picture book for younger children, yet the theme and images require some sophistication and a desire to explore life's boundaries. What children of any age will make of parents who decided to lock up their own children for relatively minor infractions remains to be seen.-Ellen Fader, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Morrison and her son have created a rhymed parable—clearly addressing adults—about three children who are firmly, lovingly locked into a room-sized box because they "can't handle their freedom." Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue don't follow all the rules, e.g., at school, Patty "ran through the halls and wouldn't play with dolls/And when we pledged to the flag she'd spoil it." Their teachers, parents, and neighbors nervously put them away, not listening to their repeated protestation: " `I know that you think/You're doing what is best for me./But if freedom is handled just your way/Then it's not my freedom or free.'Ê" Potter places sad children and grave adults into fresh compositions, done in restrained colors, scattered with the small animals and items mentioned in the text. The Morrisons end with a challenge—"Who says they can't handle their freedom?"—that is weakened by an illustration that, in showing the children effortlessly pushing down the box's walls, misses the point. Nonetheless, it's a valid message, strongly made, and a promising children's book debut for the authors. (Picture book. 8+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786812912
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
  • Publication date: 9/2/2002
  • Series: Jump at the Sun Series
  • Pages: 48
  • Age range: 7 - 11 Years
  • Product dimensions: 10.75 (w) x 10.87 (h) x 0.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison
Few contemporary novelists have achieved the venerated status of Toni Morrison. She has written adored modern classics like Beloved and Song of Solomon that daringly blend the supernatural and the natural with an uncommonly poetic eloquence. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Noble Prize for Literature, and is truly one of America’s most gifted storytellers.


Toni Morrison has been called "black America's best novelist," and her incredible string of imaginative contemporary classics would suggest that she is actually one of America's best novelists regardless of race. Be that as it may, it is indeed difficult to disconnect Morrison's work from racial issues, as they lie at the heart of her most enduring novels.

Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, a milieu Jet magazine described as "mixed and sometimes hostile," Morrison experienced racism firsthand. (When she was still a toddler, her home was set on fire with her family inside.) Yet, her father instilled in her a great sense of dignity, a cultural pride that would permeate her writing. She distinguished herself in school, graduating from Howard and Cornell Universities with bachelor's and master's degrees in English; in addition to her career as a writer, she has taught at several colleges and universities, lectured widely, and worked in publishing.

Morrison made her literary debut in 1970 with The Bluest Eye, the story of a lonely 11-year-old black girl who prays that God will turn her eyes blue, in the naïve belief that this transformation will change her miserable life. As the tale unfolds, her life does change, but in ways almost too tragic and devastating to contemplate. On its publication, the book received mixed reviews; but John Leonard of The New York Times recognized the brilliance of Morrison's writing, describing her prose as " precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."

Over time, Morrison's talent became self-evident, and her reputation grew with each successive book. Her second novel, Sula, was nominated for a National Book Award; her third, 1977's Song of Solomon, established her as a true literary force. Shot through with the mythology and African-American folklore that informed Morrison's childhood in Ohio, this contemporary folktale is notable for its blending of supernatural and realistic elements. It was reviewed rapturously and went on win a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The culmination of Morrison's storytelling skills, and the book most often considered her masterpiece, is Beloved. Published in 1987 and inspired by an incident from history, this post-Civil War ghost story tells the story of Sethe, a former runaway slave who murdered her baby daughter rather than condemn her to a life of slavery. Now, 18 years later, Sethe and her family are haunted by the spirit of the dead child. Heartbreaking and harrowing, Beloved grapples with mythic themes of love and loss, family and freedom, grief and guilt, while excavating the tragic, shameful legacy of slavery. The novel so moved Morrison's literary peers that 48 of them signed an open letter published in The New York Times, demanding that she be recognized for this towering achievement. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2006, it was selected by The New York Times as the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

In addition to her extraordinary novels, Morrison has also written a play, short stories, a children's book, and copious nonfiction, including essays, reviews, and literary and social criticism. While she has made her name by addressing important African-American themes, her narrative power and epic sweep have won her a wide and diverse audience. She cannot be dismissed as a "black writer" any more than we can shoehorn Faulkner's fiction into "southern literature." Fittingly, she received the Nobel Prize in 1993; perhaps the true power of her impressive body of work is best summed up in the Swedish Academy's citation, which reads: "To Toni Morrison, who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Good To Know

Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.

In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole play Dreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.

Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Chloe Anthony Wofford (real name)
      Toni Morrison
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lorain, Ohio
    1. Education:
      Howard University, B.A. in English, 1953; Cornell, M.A., 1955

Interviews & Essays

Toni Morrison Makes You Think

In her first illustrated book for children, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison delivers a powerful, thought-provoking poem that challenges the definitions of societal boundaries adults set for children. In The Big Box, parents, teachers, and other adults determine the boundaries of personal freedom for three feisty kids "who just can't handle their freedom." To make these youngsters abide by their rules, the grown-ups create a world inside a box-a world with toys and games, treats and gifts, and all kinds of stuff they think kids need to be happy and carefree. But all these kids really want is the freedom to be themselves. And even confined inside a box, these clever children find their own ways to be free. (Ages 8 and up)

Toni Morrison Talks About The Big Box

Q: You've written The Big Box with your son Slade. What inspired the two of you to work together on this project?

A: My younger son was hurt and mystified by a teacher's comment (a common nostrum in education at the time) that he "couldn't handle his freedom." We talked about it off and on, trying to figure out what, other than the obvious, was meant. I jotted down his comments and complaints and later organized them and turned them into rhyme. His observations I expanded and shaped into an admittedly subversive story of adults not listening to children and retreating into "rules" that protect the adults-not the children.

Q: How do you think childhood has changed since you were raising your own children?

A: Children have not changed, but adults have. Expectations are lower in some ways: Parents do not need the labor of their children as was once the case. While this is certainly not true of all families, certainly not true of working families with modest incomes-increasingly, in the media and the discourse of parenting, one notices how irrelevant children have become. On the other hand, the expectations are higher than ever: Publicly approved "success" is intensely sought at earlier and earlier ages, and private achievement is devalued or taken for granted. More and more children are regarded as "trophies," "Oscars" bestowed on the parents.

Q: What is The Big Box about?

A: The plight (and resistance) of children living in a wholly commercialized environment that equates "entertainment" with happiness, products with status, "things" with love, and that is terrified of the free (meaning un-commodified, unpurchaseable) imagination of the young. (Although children participate enthusiastically in the "love me so buy me" pattern, I think they are taught to think that way and that on some deep level they know what is being substituted.)

Q: Many readers have asked, "What is the big box?" Some readers take it literally. Can you explain your intention in creating this "box" for children?

A: It is a soft, familiar, comfortable, everyday "prison" into which children are metaphorically placed when their imagination is suppressed or programmed.

The children in The Big Box are surrounded by a kind of perfection-they have the newest and best toys, they are in comfortable settings with soft chairs, treats of all kinds, including a fancy television set-but much of it is fake (a jar of dirt, a butterfly under a glass, a recording of a seagull), the doors only open one way, and there are multiple locks to keep the children from getting out.

Q: Are they being punished or protected?

A: Both. Precisely. The point of the story (and one of its points) is the difficulty we have in distinguishing between the two. One of the refrains in the book is "those kids can't handle their freedom."

Q: What kind of freedom do you think we take away from our children? What price do they, and the culture at large, pay for that loss of freedom?

A: Imaginative freedom is lost, as well as singularity.

Q: The parents in The Big Box seem to have the means to provide a lot for their children and yet they are largely absent. Do you feel that possessions are taking the place of parents in children's lives? Where are the parents?

A: We seem to be rearing consumers rather than citizens or individuals. The central problem is consumer happiness (which is a bottomless pit that can never be filled) vs. personal interior delight (learning how to relish ones perception and take pleasure from the accessible world). In the story, the world of nature is either denied or given in tiny, safe bits (jar of dirt, etc.). But no unfettered contact is allowed.

Q: In a recent discussion with a group of fifth graders and their parents, the kids dove into the questions raised in the book, while the adults confessed they thought it "weird" and "depressing." Does that surprise you?

A: I am not surprised. The story meant to provoke questions and reflections. (When I first put this story together, I was told that it was unsaleable because: 1. Adults bought children's books, not children, and 2. No children's book that did not offer a reconciliation with the adult view was marketable. In short, it was disturbing precisely because it suggested a division, a conflict between a child's point of view and an adult's. That seemed to be a strong dismissal of children's intelligence.)

Q: A parent asked if the kids thought there was more freedom (i.e. no more rules) in the box than outside. It raised interesting conversations-what do you think about this?

A: A good and revealing question. "Outside" has become more and more threatening. Parents are understandably (and legitimately) fearful of it, and in negotiating the dilemma of freedom vs. safety, the box (even if a prison) may represent security without risk.

Q: The head of the discussion group asked if kids ever feel like they are in a box. Did you have this question in mind when writing The Big Box?

A: I had in mind what all parents think about-the difficulty of figuring out what is protection and what is suppression. What is freedom and what is license. An eternal and universal condition of parenting and of growing up. A very hard job.

Q: Your kids are from all over-suburbs, farms, cities-do you think there are places in this country or in other parts of the world where children are not boxed in?

A: Certainly. Among families who refuse to be tyrannized by the "buy love" culture and among those who haven't the resources and have to rely on more inventive expressions of caring.

Q: What do you hope children will hear in the language of the book?

A: The voice of another child who had the same questions they have.

Q: What do you hope parents will take away after a reading of The Big Box?

A: Thoughts about how much weight we give to "things" in order to show love and caring. Thoughts about what our children really want and need from us.

Q&A courtesy of Hyperion Books for Children.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2007

    Thought Provoking

    I wish every educator and every parent struggling to keep or get their children in an inclusive educational setting would read this book. The Big Box, to me, is the same thing as the self-contained classroom, that some think is 'best' for my daughter, and that I have to fight to keep her out of. We are a diverse culture in which EVERYONE belongs...we cannot just shut those away who move through life differently than what society defines as the 'norm'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2005

    wonderful book

    Yes, this book is more for adults to read because it tells how controlling that they can be sometimes. This book is great for kids because it shows them an appreation for their freedoms and what they enjoy. This could lead into a discussion on the war efforts and what freedom means to them. I'm not saying get into a great big debate on the matter, but enough to get them started thinking about what's happening in the story and how it can relate to their lives. It is also a great multicultural book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2004

    Profound and Major Issues Raised

    I loved this book and have read it to my 7 year old step daughter over and over again. It gives way to conversation about how un accepting the world can be of people. However, it illustrates the ability to overcome that obstacle. It also shows that there is need to be tolerant and understanding with people who feel that others should conform to values/rules viewed as most important in their world. If you want to raise a child that has their own views on life, can see beyond initial perceptions and is non-conformist in nature, then reading The Big Box with your child is great way to initiate conversation about such adult issues.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2004

    This book is horrible!

    If you want your child to have nighmares and feel like they are going to be disowned, this is the book to read. While the lyrical quality of this book sucks you in, don't be fooled. This book is poor at best and dangerous at worst. Many people may be impressed by the name of the author and the premise of the book to their detriment. We need to discuss tolerance and acceptance with children, but this book is not the vehicle to this dialogue.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2004

    How Horrible

    I consider myself and educator and an involved parent. I was shocked by the negative images and concepts in this book. None of my students will hear this book. Children need positive encouragement. 'Praise the Children and They Will Blossom' Scare them and they won't trust.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2004

    Pretty good

    I liked this book. It was prettty cool. I liked the ryhming and the pictures were drawn very eloquently. iT WAS JUST PRETTY GOOD OVERALL.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2003

    Toni misssed it this time...

    I really don't think this book was written for children. I feel that Ms.Morrison tried too hard with this one. The point should be to reach children. I think Ms. Morrison was very unfair in her portrayal of the adults in this book. I feel that this story lacks balance!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2001


    Kids of all ages LOVE the rhyming scheme and parents will love the message behind it... an inspired and eloquent book... Toni Morrison is a genius.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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