Children’s books have always had a special place in my heart. I love their honesty and simplicity, their fantastic worlds and whimsical characters, and how they can bring out a sense of childlike wonder. There are a few children’s books, however, that have found a permanent place in my adult heart for the lessons they continue to teach me:
1. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“Goodbye, said the fox. And here is my secret: it is very simple. We don’t see well unless we look with our hearts. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – The Little Prince
I first encountered this beautiful little book in high school French class. This story follows the adventures of a Little Prince as he travels from planet to planet, meeting all sorts of grownups as he tries to find a way back home to the rose whom he loves. His travels eventually bring him to Earth, to the Sahara Desert, where he meets yet another grownup: an Aviator, stranded there after his plane crashes.
This classic by Saint-Exupéry is meant for kids, but there is an important lesson for all of us in this book. The adults (and their problems) are portrayed as absurd in this story. Like the king, who reigns over his planet of one and commands the sun to set “when conditions are favorable,” which happens to be about 7:30pm that evening. Or the lamplighter who lives on a planet so small the sun rises and sets each minute. The lamplighter diligently lights and extinguishes his lamp each minute, all the while complaining about his job.
While the Little Prince struggles with concepts like friendship and love, the grownups he meets are preoccupied with their ridiculous notions of status, work, money, and power. Through these characters, Saint-Exupéry makes a clear distinction between what truly matters and what does not. As I’ve become a “grownup” myself, the Little Prince has continued to remind me of what’s truly important in life, namely love, friendship, and hope. Or, as the fox says, the essential things that cannot be seen but with the heart.
2. Swordbird by Nancy Yi Fan
“Peace is wonderful; freedom is sacred. As long as there is peace and freedom, there is tomorrow.” – Swordbird
Swordbird is the tale of the blue jays and cardinals of Stone Run Forest. The two tribes of birds must find a way to defeat an evil hawk that has moved into the forest and is bent on destroying them. The birds decide that their only hope is to call on the hero bird of legend, Swordbird, to come and help them defeat the evil hawk.
For me, one of the best things about children’s books is how they totally take you into their world. Swordbird has it all: dreamy illustrations, songs, and a map of Stone Run Forest. Its characters steal your heart for the entirety of this charming story, which makes it even better when you realize the author wrote the book when she was only twelve years old. It’s not only a beautiful story. It was a powerful lesson for my younger self about what kids are capable of. It affected me deeply when I realized that someone my age could write a story so powerful. I admit, I cried when one of the brave birds died in their mission. I had never read anything like that by such a young author, and it continues to inspire me to this day.
3. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono
“I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if God granted him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many more that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.” – The Man Who Planted Trees
The Man Who Planted Trees is a short story originally published in 1953 that tells the story of how one shepherd single-handedly restored a forest in a desolate valley. The solitary shepherd replants the forest one acorn at a time, eventually creating a sort of Paradise in what was once a wasteland. By the time the man passes away, the forest has grown into maturity and the scientists blame the spontaneous Eden on some sort of bizarre natural phenomenon, not knowing about the selfless actions of the shepherd.
Because this story is more allegory than fairy tale, the lessons about environmentalism are easy to tease out. However, this story offers so much more through the example of the humble shepherd. What strikes me most about this story is its unique approach to the relationship between humans and the natural world. Until hearing this story, all the environmental books and movies I’d encountered included separating people from the natural world and keeping them away: the two do not intersect. The shepherd is not a man who has renounced civilization: he simply lives apart from it. He doesn’t live in a tent or like a wild man but rather in a simple, clean house. He lives a quiet, ordered life and goes about his daily work of planting trees with no agenda. He simply knows the universal good of a forest and creates this paradise to benefit all life, including human life. This modest story taught me a profound lesson about human’s relationship with nature, as well as the value of modest, everyday good deeds.
4. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Di Camillo
“The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.” – The Tale of Despereaux
Despereaux embodies the true genius of children’s books: namely, that they can discuss large and abstract concepts like truth, beauty, and love in a way that is simple enough to be understood by young readers but sophisticated enough that it continues to inform your understanding of these ideas as you move through your adult life.
This story is all about light and dark. Despereaux is a mouse who lives in a castle and who has a natural affection for what is true and beautiful (his loves include the light that falls through stain glass windows, the books in the library, music and of course, the kind and beautiful Princess Pea). Despereaux, even though he is a little mouse, must journey to the dark and hopeless dungeon beneath the castle where the rat Roscuro has trapped the Princess Pea and intends to hold here there forever.
If nothing else, this book taught me from a very young age that we all desire beauty. Even more than that, we all need beauty. The rat Roscuro traps the Princess Pea because he wants to possess light – he needs beauty in the cold, dark dungeon. Despereaux must save her, because he needs to know that happy endings are real and light can exist in this dark world without being snuffed out. All the characters struggle with finding light throughout the book; there is a desperate need for each person (or rodent) in this story for light and that struggle finds it’s fulfillment in beauty. As a kid, this book told me that the rat and the mouse both needed the Princess’ light. But as an adult, this book reminds me that we all have a deep need to experience beauty in this world. I think, like Despereaux, we all need to know that there can be light, and happy endings.
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