Life Lessons from Children's Books

Eliza Clark
February 12, 2010

A review of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book: Life Lessons from Notable People from All Walks of Life, edited by Anita Silvey

"Reason 1,000,001 to have children: You get to read children's books all over again, no apologies or explanations required. And you get to understand them in a whole new way."

So says one of the contributors to Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book. Now some of us here at The Savvy Source might move reading children's books quite a bit higher up on our list of reasons to have children. But never mind that. We're not here to quibble - we're here to salute this marvelous tribute to the magic of children's literature.

In case you've ever wondered what exactly the cozy, pajama-clad snuggler by your side is getting out of his or her 136th reading of Goodnight Moon or The Little Engine That Could, the essays in this book will explain. In more than 100 entries, leading figures in the arts, sciences, politics, media, business and literature recall a favorite book from their childhood, and explain its impact on their lives.

What fun it is to peruse this volume! The contributors range from comedian Jay Leno to historian David McCullough, and the books they've chosen include well-known favorites and also obscure but worthy-of-dusting-off classics. Each entry is accompanied by a meaty excerpt and illustrations from the book discussed, and editor Anita Silvey offers just the needed context - the history and significance of the book and author, as well as a short bio on the essay's contributor. (And as a bonus, there's a more comprehensive recommended booklist for children at the back.)

There are many priceless comments and moving literary recollections here, but we were of course most interested in the entries that harkened back to various eminent persons' preschool years. A few tidbits to amuse and edify:

Novelist Anne Tyler learned about the passage of time from Virginia Lee Burton's story of a little house who watches the world change from generation to generation: "At age four, listening to The Little House, I had a sudden spell of...wisdom, I guess you could call it."

Master mystery writer Ken Follett loved Beatrix Potter books as a boy, and is still enthralled. He calls The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit "the shortest thriller every written. In just 141 words it presents suspense, crime, gun play, and retributive justice." He reads it to his grandchildren and says, "it still teaches me how to write."

Developmental psychologist and Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik writes of Alice in Wonderland, "I think every scientist and every child is the grave, wide-eyed little girl who fearlessly follows evidence and logic wherever it leads-even through the looking-glass and down the rabbit hole."

Judy Blume adored Madeline so much, she hid her copy from the library so that her mother could not return it. "I thought the copy I had hidden was the only copy in the whole world. I knew it was wrong to hide the book, but there was no way I was going to part with Madeline."

Babar was Leslie Moonves's favorite, and the CEO of CBS credits the adventurous elephant king with inspiring his own sense of curiosity. "Curiosity is required every day in my work, more now than ever before. I first learned to value that virtue as a child in the boos about Babar."

And what is Maurice Sendak's choice? Harold and the Purple Crayon, because of the theory behind it: "Just let the kid do his own thing; let him have fun. Books shouldn't teach. They shouldn't give lessons. Kids should feel that they can do what they want and no one will punish them. They can just be kids and enjoy reading and looking at books."

The essays in this book make us think of our own childhood favorites, and trigger all kinds of memories of books we'd forgotten. They inspire mental lists of books we want to share with our children, now and as they get a older. It reminds us that while reading is essential in and of itself, reading the good stuff truly matters. We are inspired to seek out the many beautiful, exciting and meaningful works of children's literature, contemporary and from the past.

And here at The Savvy Source, we pledge to continue doing just that!

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