Picture Books Adults Should Read

Eight young-children’s books that offer adults something to ponder.

Posted Jul 18, 2014

Sometimes, we change not from personal reflection or reading a complex book but from a simple story: a fable, fairy tale, or parable.

Among the simplest stories are children’s picture books. The first seven of these eight are wonderful for kids but also offer adults food for thought. The eighth is for adults only.

The Giving Tree is about a tree who loved a boy and gave him all he could. Finally, as an old man, the boy said he was tired and asked the tree for a place to sit. The tree told him to cut off its trunk (murder him) so the boy could sit on the stump and the boy did. Thus the book embeds the question, “How much sacrifice is to be admired: When do we admire a soldier who gives his life in battle? How about a person who works into an early grave trying to provide more income for the family?"

The Story About Ping is about a duckling who would be coming home late and thus get a swat. Afraid of the punishment, he stayed out and almost got eaten by people. Finally, he decided to return home and accept the punishment. While I’m against corporal punishment, the book does make us think about whether to accept our action’s consequences. Over my lifetime, I’ve noticed an increase in people, to avoid consequences, blaming others or the system for their failings. How much do you take responsibility for your screw-ups? Do you unfairly externalize responsibility?

Fancy Nancy tells of a girl who likes everything fancy: from clothes to food to furniture. But rather than diminish that as fluff, the book makes a case for spicing life up with the non-essential but, to its credit, doesn’t insist that’s the right way. It leaves the reader to ponder the question, “How practical should we be?

Blueberries for Sal. We may say to ourselves, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” yet often succumb to that dessert. We may say, “I really should get that project done” yet we procrastinate. We’re all tempted by a short-term pleasure even when it imposes greater long-term pain. Blueberries for Sal presents that problem: Sal must decide whether to eat the berries now or save them so there’s enough to last through winter. Are you, often enough, willing to delay gratification?

No, David. This story tells of a typical active boy whose parent tells him “No!” again and again. Indeed, this is reflective of the real world. Boys are disciplined at school far more often than are girls and are put on a Ritalin leash eight times as often. Beaten down, teenage boys commit suicide at more than twice the rate of girls. This is a rare book that offers a sympathetic view of active boys’ relentlessly having their spirit crushed. As parents and teachers and in the media, we seem to consider boys inferior, as needing their essence changed. Is that any fairer than asking girls to change their essence?

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  A new, gold-standard Princeton University metaanalysis of other studies was just reported in the New York Times. It finds that success is more a function of talent than of effort or practice. Nevertheless, irrationally, I find comfort in the effort-caused success of Mike Mulligan’s obsolete steam shovel. The question is, “Are you doing work in which your natural talents makes it easier for you to succeed?”

The Cat in the Hat  This Dr. Seuss book actually is a bit subversive. Its message is: When you break a rule, as long as no significant harm accrued, consider covering your tracks and lying about it. The story is about a cat that visits two kids when mom is away. He creates fun mayhem. When they hear mom return, the cat cleans up and leaves. Mom returns and asks the kids what they did while she was gone. The book ends by asking the reader, “What would YOU say if your mother asked YOU?" The question for adults: When is it and isn’t it worth breaking rules? When is it worth covering up?

Go the Fuck to Sleep. It’s only natural to get frustrated with your children but it’s difficult to acknowledge that to people outside your family. This New York Times #1 best-selling book breaks that silence and also leads us to ask the foundational question: Is it worth having kids?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.