We have all been kids and read books that made a huge impact on us; it could be because of a memory we connect to it, like our parents reading us the same story every night when going to bed, or because we could really relate to the characters; maybe because reading those books was the closest experience of living in a fantasy world; maybe just because we thought it was a good way to cheat our parents into going to bed late. As years pass by and (some more than others) start to grow up and fill their brains with other fantastic stories, we might forget that behind some of those books there was a special message that influenced our process of growth. It might be the case that since those books are especially addressed to kids, they may reveal themselves in a very different form from what we are used to interpret as readers of adult fiction when we grow up.
We can still learn a lot from children books. Human growth is not a finite process with a beginning and an end, especially in times like the current ones, where values related to acceptance and equality seem to be forgotten by the parts of the population and elite. Growing up is a process that never stops; maybe it is time to go back to basics and reflect on topics and issues that might sometimes be neglected.
The little prince (1943) – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.)”
Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful dedication to Léon Werth, french writer and close friend of the author, serves as a clear declaration of intentions of the book; to remind adults of the importance of an exploration as a tool for personal development.
After suffering a plane crash in an unknown location far from civilisation, the narrator meets the little prince, who tells him the story of his life. Among sheep drawings and storytelling, the narrator, mostly through the little prince’s stories, explores and reflects upon the essence of human relationships and the value of nature. The Little Prince can be understood as an ode to childhood for children and adults, and as reminder of the importance of taking, along the process of growing, those inherent attributes of being a child; question everything, look at things from a different perspective, let the imagination run freely.
By diving into certain recurrent topics of human life, Saint-Exupéry masters the act of reflecting on our own existence from a simple and innocent perspective. This can clearly be seen in passages such as the one where the prince meets a fox. Through the conversation, the fox is presented as a wise entity who is able to advise the prince on transcendent human experiences:
“One sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye.”
The fact that this conversation takes place between an animal and a kid seems to be pointing out the fact that as adults, we might forget what is essential for our being and the importance of understanding each other. We need to focus on matters that might have become trivial in our daily life as adults and go back to them in order to have a deeper and better understanding of life.
Momo (1973) – Michael Ende
Momo is an orphan girl living in an amphitheater in an unknown city in Italy. She’s special; she knows how to listen to people when they talk. One day the so called Men in Grey take control of the city with only one purpose in mind: to make people save their time and win more of it by depositing it in the Timesaving Bank. Little by little, the whole city becomes a slave of the idea of time-saving, forgetting everything that makes them different from one another and remembering only that saving time is what they are supposed to live for. This leads to an homogenous, sterile daily life in the city, totally absorbed by the idea of time-saving.
Ende’s Momo can clearly be seen as a strong reaction to the upcoming capitalist and neoliberalist societies that were gaining force during the 70’s in the Western countries. The fact that the main obstacle for this model to develop and completely succeed is a kid who knows how to listen seems to reflect on the idea of our power as human beings. Momo can be seen as a representation of all those values that have made us social beings on a cultural and affective level, above the pure survival and physical needs; needing but at the same time enjoying being in company of others, taking care of each other and helping those who are in need.
Capitalist societies treat people as numbers, and the only way to fight against them is to become more human. Momo does something everyone seems to have forgotten; she creates strong human connections on the basis of simple, selfless interaction and her worry about the well-being of others. She listens, therefore she understands what people feel and can relate to it. In other words: she is empathic. In a world where having an ambitious professional career, having a good place to live and the greatest car the market can offer, we might have forgotten how is it to stop for a second to listen and feel.
Typescript of the Second Origin (1974) – Manuel de Pedrolo
(Available in Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian among others – upcoming English translation April 2018 by Wesleyan University Press)
“-What did he do to you?”
-We don’t want him with us, because he’s black.
-What if he drowns?
They look as they didn’t care, since they were two boys growing up in a context of cruelty and prejudices”.
Fourteen year-old Alba and nine year-old Dídac live in rural Catalonia, where Dídac is constantly bullied by other kids because of his race. The book opens with a scene where a bunch of youngsters throw the boy into a lake. Thankfully, Alba is walking by and she is able to rescue Dídac from drowning.
During the minutes both girls spend under the water, the Earth is targeted by an alien invasion that kills all mammals on Earth and damages most of the technology available at the time. Nevertheless, Alba and Dídac survive, and after realising that the catastrophe took place and that everyone is dead, they understand the need of staying together: they start a new life. Through a process of self-discovery, the characters begin to learn from each other’s past experiences as well as from the new ones. After some years growing and learning together, they realise that they have the chance, but also the duty, to create a new world in order to save humanity from total extinction. Having lived in the old world, the teenagers understand that they can learn from past mistakes and create a new, improved and more responsible society.
The book focuses on the importance of educating oneself and learning from past experiences as a form of individual and collective development, and reflects on the idea of being in charge, as well as on having a moral duty to improve our society. As a young reader, one might relatively easily idealise or simplify the concepts related to the good and the bad. Which is precisely why, as adults, we sometimes need a reminder: that as citizens of the world with certain privileges we still have the duty to improve not only ourselves, but also the place we live in. We need to fight the inequalities still present in the world, educate ourselves and others from a humble perspective, and keep improving our society, because we are that society; we have constructed it, we are part of it, and we need to maintain it.