Life Lessons We’ve Learned From Children’s Literature

Kids books at B&N

As a grownup, childless person—with grownup things like a job, and health insurance, and achy knees—I don’t often get to read children’s books, unless I’m visiting my nephews. But sometimes it helps to revisit the classics from childhood, because they have life lessons that can be useful, whether you’re four or thirty-four (and no, I’m not talking about how we learned from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that it would be awesome to have a pet phoenix and a flying Ford Anglia). Here are five of my favorites, and the lessons they’ve left me.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst
Like the hero of Judith Viorst’s 1972 classic, yesterday I had a wretched day. Like Alexander, I didn’t get a seat by the window (on the subway. Actually, I didn’t get a seat at all). There was certainly no dessert with my lunch. And everything was so cold and unforgiving and dreary that I considered moving to Australia. Eventually, though, I got to watch some ice skating and snowboarding and I remembered that bad days always end.
(Secondary lesson: Call your mom, it might make you feel better.)

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald
As a child, I loved Betty MacDonald’s whimsical (and frankly, insane) stories of an eccentric neighbor lady to whom parents turn when their kids won’t behave. It seemed perfectly logical to me that a mother would plant radishes on her filthy daughter who never wants to bathe! And it didn’t seem outside the realm of logic or good parenting to progressively starve a little boy who eats slowly (and who, let’s face it, clearly has a raging case of OCD). This is because I was a child, and had never heard the term “operant conditioning.” The lesson I took away from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is to pay attention to those crazies in your neighborhood, because they might smell like sugar cookies and give you a magic powder that mutes interrupters (!), or they might give your children a parrot, which will live for eighty years and drive you bonkers. Always be vigilant, that’s what Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle taught me.
(Secondary lesson: Just take a bath already, you hippie.)

A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I always loved this 1905 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel more than The Secret Garden, probably because the main character and I have the same name. (The gorgeous, sumptuous Alfonso Cuarón film adaptation came along a bit late for me, but it’s wonderful.) A Little Princess is a good reminder that it is in your best interest to be nice to people, because you might lose everything and have to live in a garret, and if you were a jerk face, not even the mice or the scullery maid will be your friends.
(Secondary lesson: Speaking a second language is super useful!)

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson
When I was in college, a classmate of mine gave a presentation on Harold and the Purple Crayon in a 200-level English course. That’s how much Crockett Johnson’s 1955 story of a wee graffiti artist in training meant to him. And it stuck with me, too. Harold teaches us that if something doesn’t exist and you want it, you should make it. It’s a helpful mantra to repeat when mired in an anticreative muck.
(Secondary lesson: Invest in washable markers.)

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen
Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and its Caldecott Medal–winning sequel (sort of), This Is Not My Hat, are good reminders that stealing is bad. Because you might get eaten by a bear.
(Secondary lesson: Don’t hang out with bears!)

What important lessons did children’s literature teach you?