New children’s book pays tribute to Toni Morrison
LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas professor of English has taken the profound grief she felt after the 2019 death of the acclaimed African American author Toni Morrison and turned it into a children’s book inspired by the great storyteller.
“Small-Girl Toni and the Quest for Gold” (Viking Press/Penguin Random House) is thought to be the first children’s book inspired by the life of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such novels as “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.”
Giselle Anatol was teaching the latter book the year after Morrison died, and, among several other Morrison works, it figures into the plot of “Small-Girl Toni.” In “Song of Solomon,” the character Milkman hunts for treasure.
“He is frustrated at every turn in his attempt to get this physical gold,” Anatol said. “But eventually he discovers important information about his ancestors and his connections to family and community. I thought it would be great to incorporate those ideas into a children's book.”
Anatol said she has long dabbled in producing bespoke, illustrated children’s literature for family members, and she tried unsuccessfully to get some published while she was a graduate student. She laid the endeavor aside for years while producing nonfiction academic works such as “The Things That Fly In the Night: Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora" (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
She went back to it after Morrison’s death, starting by gathering up some of Morrison’s impressionistic turns of phrase and vibrant imagery.
With the help of an agent she met a children’s literature conference and eventually her editor at Penguin, Anatol said, she made the narrative “more plot-focused” and child-centered for a young audience. That was enhanced by the luminous artwork of her collaborator, Raissa Figueroa.
Morrison herself wrote some children’s books with her son, Slade.
“She thought that the picture book actually was the perfect vehicle for bringing generations together to talk about important topics,” Anatol said. “It can open up conversations and understanding, given the way that very young children can hit on a truth that adults are afraid to talk about.”
Thus, in one such instance, Small-Girl Toni and her three siblings encounter a prejudiced shopkeeper who rebuffs them in their quest for golden sweets. The book is set in the mid-20th century, when Morrison would have been a young girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio.
Anatol said she makes “winks and nods” to Morrison’s oeuvre throughout the book. She hopes adult readers familiar with Morrison will get the allusions, while children and other readers will be intrigued.
“For people who have not read Morrison,” Anatol said, “maybe they'll think, ‘OK, I'll try to read a Morrison novel again, now that I have this kind of guide as to what the essence of the story is.’ And then for children, I hope they will think, ‘This is really cool. Maybe when I get older, I will want to read a Morrison book.’”