As a kid, my reading list never really reflected the reading habits of my friends. I was always reading books that a lot of adults considered too advanced for younger readers. Despite this, I loved them, and I still keep copies of many of them.
Now some of the books I read as a kid were books that are, ostensibly, for younger readers, but I always felt they were just a little more than simple kids’ books. I’ve read many of them as an adult, as well, and I love them still, which is why they remain in my library.
I was reminded of one of them last night when I discovered a graphic novel version of it at my local library. I delighted in rediscovering it in a new way. It was like meeting an old friend who’d had a makeover. The look was a little different, but I knew my friend at once.
I thought I might share some of my favorite books that were originally intended for a younger audience but that’re anything but childish. If you have kids, these might be good books to share with them. And if not, they might be old friends to you, as well.
Invisible to the Eye
The old friend I rediscovered last night was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There’s a graphic novel, adapted and illustrated by Joann Sfar, which captured the feel of the original novel wonderfully. This book has always obsessed me, made me happy, made me sad, and generally made me think.
The book is about a man whose plane has crashed in the Sahara Desert. A boy appears, asking the narrator to draw him a sheep. This boy turns out to have flown to earth from a distant planetoid, and he relates his adventures to the narrator, inspiring a strange but wonderful friendship between the two of them. The book is so small, but it explores themes of love, death, friendship, and the building of relationships.
One of the most extraordinary moments of the book comes in the form of a quote from a fox whom the Little Prince tames. The fox tells him that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This amazing sentiment is something I’ve carried with me for years and years, and I doubt I’ll ever lose touch with it.
You Will Succeed
If you want to introduce a kid to existentialism at a young age, all you need to do is hand them a copy of Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child and be ready for the fallout of questions afterwards. This book, and the animated movie based on it, got me thinking when I was younger, and they’ve kept me thinking as an adult.
The Mouse and his Child are wind-up toys who’re damaged in a toy store and are discarded. They are repaired by a tramp and set forth on an adventure. The Child wants to find the other toys from the toy store in order to build them into a family, while the Mouse wants them to become self-winding so that they can take control of their own destiny. Along the way, they meet an oracular frog, a villainous rat (or is he? Hard to say in the end…), and, most memorably, a turtle playwright. This character, C. Serpentina, becomes a sort of philosophical guide to the Mouse’s Child, while never quite seeing what the Child himself learns to see – a goal beyond that which is visible to the eye.
Hmm…maybe that’s a theme that spoke to me when I was a kid.
This book is an example of how even a seemingly simple story can contain some very complex concepts. It’s very adult in a way. Many characters die suddenly and violently, and the villain of the piece may or may not find redemption. It’s left a bit ambiguous in a way. It’s definitely not standard children’s fare.
There’s a Dog Loose in the Wood
If you’ve never read Watership Down or seen the animated adaptation, then you are missing a true gem. It may seem incredible that a book about rabbits could be so intense, bloody, and violent, but it most assuredly is.
Watership Down follows a group of rabbits who follow one rabbit’s premonitions of doom away from their warren to found their own home. As they are all males, they become concerned about the long-term survival of their new colony. They stretch the traditions of rabbits by working with a bird and mice to gather information, and they seek females for their warren at a farm and at a dangerous, militant warren. In the end, it becomes a fight to the death for survival, but it also becomes a story of what is truly needed to lead. It becomes a triumph of intelligence and imagination over strength or brutality.
All of Richard Adams’ books are well-worth reading, but books like The Plague Dogs and Shardik go beyond what kids may be able to accept or enjoy. Watership Down, however, is mature enough to challenge and fascinate kids (and adults), without turning them away.
I Could Go On and On
Once you begin a list like this, it becomes hard to stop. It would be easy to add Tolkien’s The Hobbit (and I nearly did), Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, or T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone to the list. I could easily add just about anything by E. B. White, especially Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. The strange tales of Roald Dahl and Madeleine L’Engel could join this list, as could those of Daniel Pinkwater. But I’ve chosen the ones I’ve chosen, and I’ll stick by them. They are three enduring favorites of mine, and I put them up as three of the finest works of children’s literature out there.
What’re your favorite books that, as a kid, you felt were just a little more honest, or deep, or profound? What stories moved you, and still remain with you years later? Let us all know.