By: Maria Popova
What escaping boredom has to do with altruism theory and the Egyptian revolution.
Last year, we featured five of our favorite children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups, which became one of our most-shared and -discussed pieces of all time. Today, based on reader suggestions, we’re back with five more.
THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO
Between 1881 and 1883, Italian author Carlo Lorenzini, who eventually became known as Carlo Collodi, wrote a short tale that went on to become a household name and one of the world’s greatest children’s classics. The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le Avventure Di Pinocchio) is the story of a woodcarver named Geppetto in a small Italian village and the wooden puppet he created, who dreams of becoming a real boy and whose nose magically grows every time he tells a lie to construct his own reality. Full of archetypal patterns, Pinocchio captures complex themes of conscience, heroism, peer pressure, patriotism and the search for identity in a beautifully simple narrative. We recommend this particular bilingual edition by Biblioteca Italiana, featuring the complete text in Italian and English, with the original black-and-white illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti.
Fancy the happiness of Pinocchio on finding himself free! Without saying yes or no, he fled from the city and set out on the road that was to take him back to the house of the lovely Fairy.”
Pinocchio is also about the tender underbelly of Italian culture and national character, brimming with sociocultural innuendo. As Giuseppe Prezzolini famously remarked in 1923, “Pinocchio is the testing ground for foreigners; whoever understands the beauty of Pinocchio, understands Italy.”
Originally published in 1988 and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl‘s Matilda is often seen as a formative foundation for the millennial generation. With its story of an extraordinary child whose ordinary and disagreeable parents dismiss their daughter’s prodigious talent, its central theme echoes millennials’ self-perceived status as a misunderstood social actors with underappreciated talent. More importantly, however, the theme of violence and the abuse of authority — a recurring theme is Dahl’s novels — is a particularly timely one in the sociocultural context of today’s political unrest around the world, from the Middle Eastern revolutions to civic protests across Europe.
“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
THE GIVING TREE
Beautifully written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein in 1964, The Giving Tree is one of the most beloved yet controversial children’s books of all time. The duality of its interpretations — one seeing it as the poetic story of unconditional love between a boy and his tree, and the other as the darkly faithless portrait of a selfish boy who keeps on taking from a tree that keeps on giving — illustrates some of the longest-running debates of moral philosophy: Is there such a thing as true altruism, and are human beings innately kind and selfless or innately unscrupulous and selfish? (We choose to side — and live — with the former.)
But I have nothing left to give you. My apples are gone.’ ‘My teeth are too weak for apples,’ said the boy. ‘My branches are gone,’ said the tree. ‘You cannot swing on them.’ ‘I am too old to swing on branches,’ said the boy. ‘My trunk is gone,’ said the tree. ‘You cannot climb.’ ‘I am too tired to climb,’ said the boy. ‘I am sorry,’ sighed the tree. ‘I wish that I could give you something, but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.’ ‘I don’t need very much now,’ said the boy. ‘just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.’ ‘Well,’ said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, ‘well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.’ And the boy did. And the tree was happy.”
The book is also available in an original Hebrew edition, also with Silverstein’s lovely original illustration.
AN AWESOME BOOK OF THANKS!
LA-based artist and writer Dallas Clayton‘s An Awesome Book of Thanks!, a follow-up to his 2008 gem An Awesome Book!, was one of our best children’s books of 2010. It’s also timeless in both its message and the visual whimsy of its execution. A lovely homage to the art of gratitude, it’s written in a style that would make a Dr. Seuss lover swoon and illustrated with the kind of colorful whimsy that tickles your eternal inner kid awake. In a culture brimming with cynicism and entitlement, this is an absolutely delightful reminder to savor the amazing world we live in and, above all, the blessing of each other’s presence.
and thanks for the trees
and thanks for the trains
and for the breeze and for the rain
and thank you thank you ocean deep
and desert dry
and mountain steep
and balls to kick and kites to fly
and places to go when you want to cry
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH
When Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961, it was declared an instant classic and went on to be translated in multiple languages and compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It tells the story of a bored little boy who one day receives a magic tollbooth that transports him to a fantasy land called The Kingdom of Wisdom. Though at first he gets lost in the Doldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed, he goes on to incredible adventures before returning to his own room as magically as he had left it. But when he tries to revisit the Kingdom of Wisdom, he finds the magic tollbooth gone and in its place a note that reads, “For Milo, who knows the way.”
Besides the central theme of escaping boredom and intellectual stagnation through the pursuit of one’s own curiosity — a key founding philosophy here at Brain Pickings — the book is also about the importance of education, something we’ve grown increasingly concerned with and inspired by.
What you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
Missed the first part? Catch right on up.