5 Classic Children’s Books with Timeless Philosophy for Grown-Ups
The yellow brick road to self-discovery, or what long words have to do with running in place.
By Maria Popova
The hallmark of superb writing lies in the ability to compress multiple layers of meaning into a single narrative. Today, we look at five works of literature intended for children but rich in insight and wisdom about our adult reality and the ways of the grown-up world.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
There’s hardly a more profound reflection on human truth than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, charmingly written and beautifully illustrated in a way that sweeps you into a whirlwind of childhood imagination and in the process gently lands you on the deepest truths of existential philosophy.
Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Published in 1943, translated into 180 languages since and adapted to just about every medium, Exupéry’s famous novella is one of the best-selling books of all time. More importantly, it’s one of the most important handbooks to being a thoughtful, introspective adult, disguised as a children’s book.
WINNIE THE POOH
It’s a rare talent to capture profound insight in linguistic minimalism and simplicity. And hardly any literary figure does it better than A. A. Milne does in the iconic Winnie-the-Pooh books.
It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” ~Pooh
You can’t stay in your corner of the forest, waiting for others to come to you; you have to go to them sometimes.” ~ Pooh
Beneath the cloak of innocuous irreverence lies an undercurrent of postmodern wisdom about the ways of the world that somehow sneaks up on you and catches you completely off-guard, only to deliver a powerful moment of reflection and illumination.
And don’t forget Pooh’s recent comeback, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
It’s no secret we love all things Alice. But Lewis Carroll’s classic is much more than a whimsical imaginary world. Particularly in Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to the original Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, a certain philosophical undercurrent runs beneath the seemingly nonsensical dialogue and situations, inviting the grown-up reader to extract his or her own conclusive existentialism.
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” ~ The Queen
A study in contrasts and opposites, the book is as much escapism from reality as it is a journey into our most authentic, uninhibited selves.
Though written with young girls in mind and loosely inspired by the author’s own childhood growing up with her three sisters, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is very much a universal guide to and inspiration for overcoming character flaws and learning to love, not just others but oneself as well.
Someday you’ll find a man, a good man, and you’ll love him, and marry him, and live and die for him. And I’ll be hanged if I stand by and watch.” ~ Laurie
Laced with just the right amounts of humor and gravity to make it monumental yet digestible, the novel is as much a pinnacle of literary brilliance as it is a necessary coming-of-age landmark.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Not unlike The Little Prince, L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved cultural staples of our time, translated into countless languages and adapted to multiple media. And not unlike Little Women, it too is a personal growth handbook disguised as a children’s novel. A story of overcoming our greatest shortcomings by opening up to and becoming accepting of others, Baum’s book is very much a manifesto for self-improvement through compassion.
You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”
From moral imperatives to philosophical reflections to political plots, The Wizard of Oz offers a magic box of profound discoveries, buried in a playground of childhood whimsy.
Published May 19, 2010