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.


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.

From the book's opening, we see Alice wrestling with existential dilemmas. How does she know she is she—and who is she, anyway? Does her essence change with her appearance, or does it remain immutable no matter what external changes—growing, shrinking, falling, traipsing through strange doors and such—take place? Can Alice be Mabel? She's sure she can't, "for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little! Besides, she's she, and I'm I, and--oh dear, how puzzling it all is!" But soon enough, Alice realizes she's forgotten what she's known. Can she be Mabel after all, then? Does her knowledge make her who she is? Tricky business, this question of being.

In the Looking Glass, we encounter the forest that takes away the names of things—including little girls. Alice doesn't want to lose her name. For if she did, they would "have to give me another, and it would be almost certain to be an ugly one." Ugliness aside, notice that Alice never wavers in her certainty that everything must have a name. Namelessness may just as well be nonexistence.

And yet, as Carroll reminds us, a name is nothing more than a convention. Names are "useful to the people who name them." The world doesn't come with names built in--and continues on with or without the labels we put on it, just like the fawn walks with Alice when they are both anonymous, only to escape when he realizes that Alice is a human child. There's no inherent fear; just the learned dread that comes with the name human. The forest is the land of pure existence without the trappings of convention, that place where the arbitrary connection between name and thing is severed.

The game of name and meaning gains momentum as Alice debates the nature and conventions of language with Humpty Dumpty and peaks with the entrance of the White Knight, with his logical tour-de-force of names, names of names, and everything in between. What's in a name? wrote Shakespeare. Plenty, answers Carroll.

And not for nothing is the Cheshire Cat a darling of philosophers and mathematicians alike. He encapsulates the nature of existence, of time, of reality: three of the most bedeviling problems of the mind. He's the one who tells Alice that she's sure to go somewhere, "if you only walk long enough." The one who informs her that "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," echoing Plato's Theaetetus in recognizing that madness is but an extension of sleeping and waking, that reality and unreality, dreams and waking are separated by a thin line indeed. He's the philosopher personified. But how is a child to see beyond his fading grin?

If The Little Prince teaches broad perspective and the Alice books, a finer appreciation of the philosophical questions that life poses, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories offer astute character studies of some of society's most recognizable personality types.

Who hasn't met an Eeyore, the endless worrywart and eternal pessimist, who believes that the grass is the same dull brown no matter what side you're on? Eeyore is the one who, in response to Pooh's "how are you," offers a "not very how." And just contrast his and Pooh's approach to the Mystery of the Missing Tail. "You must have left it somewhere," says Pooh simply. "Somebody must have taken it," counters Eeyore. Eeyore is the sardonic one. And we shan't blame him if it rains.

And what group doesn't have a Rabbit, the doer and planner, the busybody who needs to ensure that everyone is doing just what they're supposed to be, when and how they are supposed to be doing it? Rabbit, the ever-practical. When Pooh gets stuck in his front door, he offers words of doubtful comfort: "I hope it won't snow. And I say, old fellow, you're taking up a good deal of room in my house—do you mind if I use your back legs as a towel-horse? Because, I mean, there they are—doing nothing—and it would be very convenient just to hang towels on them." Convenient, indeed.

There's Owl, the pompous scholar and aspiring intellectual, who is so much hot air behind his reputed ability to spell TUESDAY. Doubtless you've met him at a party or a conference, sometimes at the front of a classroom. Owl hides behind Big Words ("Can you read, Pooh?" he asks anxiously before agreeing to write a message for Eeyore's birthday) and manages to get Rabbit—the one who actually can read and write--to consult him, and not the other way around. "Well, the customary procedure in such cases is as follows," he tells Pooh importantly, when the bear asks what they're to do about Eeyore's missing tail. "What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?" asks Pooh. "It means the Thing to Do," Owl explains—all the while not noticing that the tail in question is hanging by his front door.

There's Piglet, the small animal who doesn't like to commit to anything without being fully certain of its safety and who always has something else to attend to when the danger reaches a certain threshold—but who can rise to the occasion when occasion demands (case in point: the day Owl's house falls down.) How important it is for him to prove that he has a grandfather—with two names, no less—looking out for him. "Supposing it was Fierce with Pigs," he wonders of the Heffalump, "would it make any difference if the Pig had a grandfather called Trespassers William?"

And, of course, there is Pooh himself, who lives as in the moment as possible. The clock in his house is stopped perpetually at Luncheon Time—and there's nothing that can't be resolved with a little smackerel of something (preferably honey). But though Pooh sees himself as a bear of little brain, there's nothing little-brained about him. Recall what happens on the Expotition to find the North Pole when baby Roo falls into the river. While Piglet jumps up and down, Kanga runs beside the stream to ask Roo if he's all right, Owl explains what to do in a Sudden and Temporary Immersion, Eeyore puts his tail into the pool where Roo fell in long after Roo has gone downstream, and Rabbit authoritatively runs around and Organizes Everyone, Pooh is the only one who actually does something useful: He gets a stick, stands down-current from Roo, and helps Roo grab the stick when the current brings him to it. The essence of each character, revealed—as always with our true essence—in the height of emergency.

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," Piglet asks him as their adventures near an end, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" Pooh answers. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" responds Piglet.

Pooh thinks it over. "It's the same thing," he says. And as adults, we can at last appreciate just how right he is.

It may seem silly to waste your time on books for children. But are we really wasting it—or using it to much better advantage? It's like the Red Queen tells Alice, "You may call it 'nonsense' if you like, but I've heard nonsense compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary."