Brain Pickings

5 (More) Children’s Books for Grown-Ups


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.


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.”

Thanks, Phil


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.”

Thanks, Toby


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.

Thanks, Alyssa


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


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.”

Thanks, Jeremy

Missed the first part? Catch right on up.

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IOU Project: Social Technology Meets Artisanal Tradition


“Transparency.” “Accountability.” “Sustainability.” “Authenticity.” In recent years, these moral ideas have been reduced to fluff-phrases empty of meaning, sprinkled atop just about every Fortune 500 corporate mission statement like some sort of odor-masking miracle candy on a sundae of bollocks. But what if they were to be taken in untainted hands, looked at with new eyes, resurrected with new spirit?

That’s what IOU Project is out to do. They produce handmade apparel from fabrics hand-woven in India. Because each textile is unique, you can trace the production process of your particular garment right back to the exact weaver who hand-wove the fabric using the IOU mobile app. The project is part storytelling experiment, part ecommerce venture, part social meeting place for a community that shares these values of authenticity and purpose, bridging centuries-old artisanal traditions with the promise of modern social technology.

In the rush to automate the world, artisans are being replaced with machines.”

Besides having what’s easily the most thoughtful visual identity we’ve seen in a while, IOU also features a number of beautifully filmed, warmly candid videos that capture the people and process behind the project.

IOU Project is still in stealth mode, but you can sign up for a heads-up about the official launch on the site, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

via Meta Filter

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A Brief History of the Pun


It’s no secret we’re obsessed with language — from the secret histories of words to how language works in the brain the uses and abuses of words to how history’s greatest literary icons do snark.

So we’re ecstatic for the release of John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics — an entertaining and illuminating exploration of how wordplay evolved to be much more than a cheap linguistic thrill or the product of bottom-feeder copywriters.

[W]hat, exactly, is the link between punning and civilization? What cultural, emotional or functional needs does it fulfill across so many centuries and continent=s? What makes wordplay in general, and punning specifically, such an enduring part of language? Could it be biological and, if so, what evolutionary purpose might it serve? And why should laughter itself even matter in the survival of the fittest?” ~ John Pollack

Pollack, a former presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton tackles the subject with equal parts cultural irreverence and linguistic rigor. See for yourself: The Morning News has an excerpt of The Pun Also Rises for your sampling pleasure.

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Gilbert Tuhabonye on Genocide, Running and Forgiveness


What the human capacity for evil has to do with the divine gift of joy.

Our friends at TEDxAustin host one of the best-produced, most thoughtfully curated TEDx events in the world. (Their opening sequence alone speaks volumes.) Nowhere does this excellence shine more powerfully than in this deeply moving talk by world-class runner Gilbert Tuhabonye — a candid and raw personal account of finding grace and refuge in the face of great tragedy, recalling how running not only enabled him to survive the horrific Burundi genocide, but also to find true joy and healing. From atrocity to aspiration, Tuhabonye’s talk embodies the most remarkable capacities of a human being — resilience, humility and, above all, forgiveness.

What makes the talk most extraordinary though is that, on the surface, it appears to use the kind of language we’ve come to associate with self-help cliches and contrived motivation-speak — except those were Gilbert’s grippingly real lived experiences, and these are the simple, powerful insights that allowed him to live through them, past them, and with them: The crisp truth in the tired truisms.

Forgiveness has allowed me to move forward. Forgiveness has allowed me to find joy. It was very hard, I had to find running. Running is my therapy, it’s my freedom. It grounds me. It makes me happy. It is the vehicle for all other blessings that have come my way.” ~ Gilbert Tuhabonye

Tuhabonye tells his remarkable story in This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness — an eloquent and poignant autobiography that blends the gruesome detail of an eyewitness account with the transformative, uplifting power of forgiveness.

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