What Grown-Ups Can Learn From Kids' Books

An adult reflects on the valuable lessons of The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie-the-Pooh.

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Reuters

My copy of Le Petit Prince looks like it has been through a natural disaster. Or two. The dust jacket is torn at every edge. What's not torn is frayed. A piece of scotch tape holds together the é and r of Exupéry. The white background can't really be called white anymore. And inside, little pencil markings lurk throughout the text (I would memorize passages when I was young), alongside evidence of attempted erasure—but you know how those old-school Number Two pencils are; all the erasers seem to do is leave things a little grayer than before. The book, in other words, has been well loved.

That's not surprising. Most favorite children's books are. But there's one thing about mine that's different: With the exception of those pesky eraser marks, the damage wasn't sustained in childhood. Those are adult wounds.

The Little Prince is not alone to suffer that horrible fate: the designation of "children's book" where it's anything but, where it is actually far more worthy of an adult designation than many a so-called "adult" work. Leaving such books to childhood is a mistake of the worst kind. Fail to re-read them from a more mature standpoint and you're almost guaranteed to miss what they're all about.

To a child, The Little Prince is the story of a boy who falls from the sky, meets lots of funny people on his travels, and then returns to his star. But take a closer look and you find as clear a commentary on everything that's wrong with modern life—and what can be done to fix it—as you would in the most biting social satire.

Think back on those planets the boy visits on his trip to earth. Each inhabitant offers a profound lesson on how easily we can go wrong in our life choices. There's the red-faced gentleman, who has "never smelled a flower...looked at a star... [or] loved anyone." Why? He's been too busy telling everyone that he's a serious man--and acting the part. For, as we learn later on, he is a businessman. A businessman whose business is counting the stars, so that he might own them—but so preoccupied is he with the counting that he forgets to enjoy his wealth. (Witness this exchange: "And what use is it to you to own the stars?" "It makes me rich." "And what is the point of being rich?" "It enables me to buy other stars." The little prince is quick to note the circular reasoning. The man himself, not so much.)

There's the lamplighter, whose job seems at first to be useful, until the prince realizes that it's nothing but mindless routine. The lamplighter has no initiative, no perspective on his work or on how it can be made more efficient or effective. Instead, he blindly follows tradition. His answer to every question is the same: "Those are the orders."

There's the geographer who doesn't explore, doesn't leave his desk, doesn't have time for such nonsense as seeing what surrounds his immediate vicinity or recording such ephemeral things as flowers. What's the point of being a geographer, wonders the prince, if you know nothing about your own planet?

There's the poignant drunkard, who drinks, "In order to forget." To forget what? the little prince wants to know. "To forget that I am ashamed," responds the drunkard. And of what, exactly? "Ashamed of drinking," is the reply. A logic that may sound all too familiar in the world outside the little prince's.

In that crowd, the subjectless king seems the least absurd of all. At the very least, he knows the limits of his authority. "If I were to order a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragedy, or to change himself into a sea-bird," he asks the little prince, "and if the general did not carry out the order, which one of us would be at fault?" A line of thinking many a real-life king would do well to adopt. And it is the king, too, who utters that hard-to-swallow truth: "It is far more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others." A lesson all too many adults have trouble learning, no matter how many times it rears its unsightly head.

The little prince reminds us to have the proper perspective on the world around us: to be attentive and present, to know why we do what we do, to remain ever-curious, ever-inquisitive, ever-questioning, to remember the things that matter--and those that don't. A child can't realize the significance of the lesson, because it hasn't yet been lost on him. The little prince's vantage point is the only one he's ever known.

The little prince isn't alone in carrying insights that are lost on a child. What of Alice in her wonderland and mirrored adventures? Alice's story may have been born from a tale told to children one lazy afternoon, but it became much more: a deep philosophical meditation.

In his Alice books, Lewis Carroll delves into such tricky ideas as the nature of identity and existence, the concept of nothingness and the quality of time, the line between sanity and insanity, between reality and dreams—and he does it in such a light-handed fashion that it almost makes you forget how weighty is the intellectual ground he covers.

Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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