CHILD'S PLAY: A few of Toni Morrison's children's books written with her late son, Slade. Please, Louise, their newest, is due out on March 4.


Indeed, in conversation, Morrison — born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, and whose pseudonym comes from her baptismal name Anthony, which she received at the age of 12 — is nothing if not complex, intimate and martial by turns. There is certainly a beauty and grace to ­Morrison’s person, her caramel eyes sparking with mischief one moment, narrowing to scrutiny the next, then morphing into sagacious globes after that. The famed dreadlocks are silver now. The mouth clamps tightly shut sometimes, as if to hold back a secret or a cutting remark, but it also falls freely open to tease the air with a ribald anecdote or a soulful howl. As anyone who has read Morrison knows, hers is a tongue that can devastate as well as salve, damn as well as exalt. It is, in other words, a heady experience being in her company.

THROUGH THE YEARS: Toni Morrison delivers a speech in 1977, the year Song of Solomon was released.
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Dressed for comfort in a loose sweater, a flowing green skirt and a simple pendant around her neck, Morrison eases into an overstuffed chair to discuss this month’s release of Please, Louise, the latest in a series of children’s books she had co-written with her son, Slade, who passed away in 2010. Despite being sumptuously illustrated by Shadra Strickland and clearly intended for very young readers, Louise is fraught with a tension that will ring familiar to readers of Morrison’s other novels.

“Flashing back to when I was very young, all the stories we were told back then were horrible and gruesome and frightening, and all the little songs one heard were grisly and dark and full of fearsome things,” she says. “That creates a sensitivity in a child that I think is good — not to be terrified, but to be that sensitive to what you see and what you experience in the world, to feel the world as it is.”

And so Louise encounters — on a walk through her neighborhood — storm clouds, abandoned houses, mangy dogs, an ominous junkyard … a world she scarcely comprehends but that seems unruly and volatile. By story’s end, though, Louise arrives at her “shelter from any storm,” the local library, which was Morrison’s safe haven as a child too.

“In the library, Louise can read these ­stories of ghosts or dragons or scary things and come close to these dreadful experiences, and yet feel that the world is somehow ­livable, recognizable, maybe even beautiful,” ­Morrison says. “There’s a difference between being terrified in life and seeing those same terrifying things in a book. That’s all the difference in the world, and it can actually be quite empowering.”