Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1949)
There are, I would argue, two main kinds of “children’s books.” First of all there are the books that address a child’s perspective, which means the point of view of someone who is growing into the physical world and all its possibilities and challenges. These are stories of outward adventure, learning, and growth, of the playful exploration that is the hallmark of a healthy childhood. Inner development and learning are there, too, as they always accompany our outer efforts, but the focus is not on introspection.
Adults can certainly enjoy these books, and when they are done well they are as worthy of literary status as any so-called “adult” book — but one can say in terms of emphasis that they are really “written for children”; they start from the place on the map where the child is, and aim to help them go further, to find their direction in life.
On the other hand, there are also books that address the childlike part of the adult, the part of us that never does grow up or completely adapt itself to the outer world, no matter how old and experienced we become. This part of us still needs to learn and grow, and is desperately in need of instruction. In fact, if we do not find it, we will die.
Children, for their part, can read and enjoy these books, but such reading gives them something they already possess. For children, they are reassuring and supportive, and help them to remember what they must not lose in the course of their journey into life. But they are actually written for adults, for people wandering and perhaps lost in the “adult” part of that journey. The orientation towards childhood is necessary, so that they can re-point themselves in the right direction again.
Le Petit Prince (which I reread in French during my Summer in Other Languages project this year) is one of the most famous and beloved examples of the latter kind of book. It presents itself as a book written for children — starting with the dedication, which is elaborately made to a friend of the author “when he was a little boy.” But even before the book really begins this highlights the fact that each grown-up was once a child, and that that child is still present in our inmost self, in the place to which we would dedicate ourselves, to which we should give our effort and our love. To the child-in-the-adult (and the child who must not lose himself in adulthood), the book is addressed.
You are probably familiar with the story: a pilot stranded in the desert has an encounter with a strange child-being, the Little Prince, whose origin and adventures are slowly revealed before he vanishes again. But — as you may also remember — the story begins with not with this encounter, but with the author’s childhood drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. Adults look at this picture and see not a fearsome predator, but an innocuous hat.
The Little Prince, on the other hand, recognizes it right away. He also sees the sheep within the box that the author draws for him (having failed miserably to draw a sheep as requested). And so it is clear that outer appearances are not what is important to our child-self, but the inner essence. Thus, it is also very likely that the appearance of the Little Prince to a man lost in the desert, in the harsh conditions of material existence, is not an outer happening, but a revelation of inward reality. He is the inner child that we all must meet, must befriend and comfort and learn from, before he disappears again on our re-entrance into ordinary life.
It was another book that I read in French this month that brought this to awareness for me: Toucher la vie, which is based upon a conference discussing mindfulness meditation. Here the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that an early stage on the path of trying to advance ourselves must be to turn towards the child within, to soothe its pain and bring it peace, acknowledging the hurts that have damaged us in life, and that we usually prefer to turn away from and ignore. If we do not have this healing encounter, then our efforts to do good in the world will fail, or we will even do harm.
He also uses the images of watering seeds of positive qualities like hope, understanding, compassion, and love, and not watering those seeds that will lead to suffering. This irresistibly reminded me of the Little Prince, the rose he waters faithfully, and the baobabs that would take over his tiny planet if they were allowed. (I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh may have read The Little Prince, but plant-images are of course common to all forms of esoteric teaching.)
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”* The Little Prince learns this central truth from a fox that he has tamed — or is it he who has been tamed by the fox, by his rose, by that for which he dares to connect himself in ties of responsibility that bring sorrow, but also beauty and joy?
Through the patient acceptance of pain that is transformed through love and relationship, the inner eye may be opened. That is what the pilot/author learns, and passes along to us, in this small book of profound wisdom. It’s definitely worth reading at any age, and in any language.
“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”*
*From the English translation by Katherine Woods