CHILD'S PLAY: A few of Toni Morrison's children's books written with her late son, Slade.

Indeed, one of Morrison’s greatest gifts as a storyteller for all ages is the tremendous sense of solace her books leave in their wake, no matter how treacherous and traumatic the preceding narrative. This is also, she says, her most appreciable pleasure in penning these books. “If I can get you inside and let you know this is interesting and it’s difficult and it’s going to be rough, but you’re safe, so don’t be afraid, I’ve got you, then that’s thrilling to me,” Morrison says. “These books are an invitation so that the two of us can go and visit these people and understand them better and come out better for it. There’s no need to be afraid.”

AS TIME GOES BY: Toni Morrison's career of lauded works and other honors goes back decades.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Reidy says that compassion is one of Morrison’s great talents as a scribe, something that’s particularly evident in children’s books like Please, Louise. “To adults, a child’s worries are things that pass, but to children, they are primal concerns,” Reidy says. “Toni understands that, and she conveys it so beautifully and compassionately in her children’s books. It also seems to me that the children’s books are where Toni has fun.”

Morrison’s longtime friend, the American poet Nikki Giovanni, who recently published Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, concurs, saying that she thinks imagination and knowledge are Toni’s coins.

The children’s books — including The Book of Mean People, The Big Box and Little Cloud and Lady Wind — were born years ago of an invitation from Morrison’s son, a musician and artist, who had the idea to upend Aesop’s tidy fables in a manner that spoke more truthfully to contemporary ­children raised in a world that is arguably more ambiguous and dangerous than that of the great moralist. “We realized we both just hated those Aesop stories, ‘The Tortoise and the Hare,’ and the one about the scorpion who bites you on the back after you’ve carried him across the river because it’s in his nature. Hated them,” Morrison laughs. “They just don’t speak to the way the world really is for children today, so we wrote these ­counter-stories, just sitting around a table, talking, coming up with ideas. It was so much fun. He often appeared surprised that I liked his work so much.”

Morrison is currently at work on an octet of ghost stories for children, completing work left unfinished by her son’s untimely passing. The volume includes a story written by a seriously ill Slade while hospitalized, in which two sick children follow a phantom man into a secret room in a spooky infirmary and make a surprising discovery. “He had such a vivid imagination,” Morrison says. “I miss him so.”