Just because it’s found in the children’s section of the library doesn’t mean that it’s shallow. Some kids’ stories have serious themes and lessons for adults. Here are five of the best:
1. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Chances are you’ve read this one (or at least watched the movies). If you’re a grown-up you can probably see the not-too-subtle lessons that J.K. Rowling is trying to get across here. But every child has to discover these lessons for herself, and while 80’s kids like me probably point to Star Wars as crucial to our understanding of good and evil (or, you know, the Bible, if you happened to grow up with that….), a whole generation of children will likely remember the Harry Potter books as the True North of their moral compass. Those crazy wizard kids with their wands and spells stand up to trolls and evil witches, study and fall in love, time-travel and solve mysteries to protect the innocent. But the series is really about Death.
Death haunts every one of the Harry Potter books. Each one has something unique to say about it: the first book introduces us to the Philosopher’s Stone that can cheat death and tells us about the magic of sacrificing your life to protect someone else. In the second book, we meet the phoenix, a creature that dies and is reborn. In the third, we see that there are things that are actually worse than death. In book four, we learn about the villainous Death Eaters and their own views about death. Book five gives us the story of Nearly Headless Nick the ghost and shows us that ghosts are phantoms of those who did not meet their death properly; we also see death itself embodied as a physical object (the curtain) and get a glimpse of the faith that there is some kind of existence for those that pass through it. The penultimate book shows us the horrible inferi [zombies… they’re totally just zombies] that are created with dark magic as another kind of awful un-life. Finally, in book seven, we learn about the Deathly Hallows and Harry Potter fulfills his messianic destiny to save the day.
Rowling’s great lesson can be summed up by Dumbledore’s statement: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Now I’m not going to say that’s a very Christian sentiment on its own, but the theme of her stories does echo something Jesus said:
“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)
That is the philosophical heart of Harry Potter—not the wands and the owls, but the idea that how we face death matters as much as how we live, and how hurting others in a vain attempt to save our own lives will cause us to lose in the end.
2. The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
At first glance this series of children’s books by the same author of The Hunger Games seems to be just a dark Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy adventure. Young Gregor and his little sister fall down a hole into an underground realm of talking animals. The catch? The world they’ve fallen into is on the brink of war.
These books deal with some heavy stuff. There are battles and violence and death, but many kids’ fantasy books have those. This series gets into topics such as biological warfare, genocide, atrocities committed by one’s own side, PTSD, and even how faith might be twisted to serve our own selfishness. Did I mention most of the characters are talking animals? Fans of the famous graphic novel Maus will feel right at home here.
If you are looking for a book that reads like a children’s fantasy series, but contains serious lessons about the complexities and horrors of war, The Underland Chronicles has what you’re looking for.
3. The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen
If you want deep life lessons in fiction, fairy tales are a safe bet. The stories that tend to survive are the ones that have been proven true to generation after generation of ordinary common folk like us. You could probably name five off the top of your head that could fill up this list, but the one I’ve chosen is the one my best friend told me he thought was one of the most important stories in all of human history.
Yes, it’s a children’s story about a vain king being tricked by a couple of clever rogues. More than that, it’s a story about power and how the plain truth can be set aside by the crowd if they are made to feel that the truth is shameful to speak.
Where does the Emperor’s power come from? This same question was posed in a famous scene from the TV series Game of Thrones. The answer given in that show is: “Power resides where men believe it resides.” The Emperor of Andersen’s tale is humbled by the end of the story, but before that he had an entire crowd of onlookers pretending the clothes are real because they don’t want to look unworthy.
Even today we can see places where obvious truth is ignored and warped out of fear of what people might think. “The Emperor has no clothes,” has become a proverb. And Hans Christian Andersen didn’t just think that this was something a child could understand; he thought it is sometimes up to the children to cry the truth that the grown-ups are pretending isn’t there.
4. Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
There are countless coming of age stories, but only one about the boy who never will. Like most stories that contain profound wisdom, it is deceptively childish. Kids fly away to a dreamworld with fairies and mermaids and pirates, where they have adventures with a boy who never grows up.
But Neverland is a darker place than we think, and Peter Pan a more tragic character than usually comes across in the cartoons and movies. The fact that Peter never grows up, while amazing, is never fully celebrated as a good thing. He misses out on romantic love (even though every female character in the story falls at least a little bit in love with him), and continually misses the mother that he cannot remember. He ends up forgetting everyone over time: the lost boys he gets rid of as they grow up, Wendy, and even poor Tinkerbell.
All the characters are trapped in cycles that they can’t get away from. Peter and Hook are locked in conflict, Peter and Wendy (and eventually Wendy’s descendants), Peter and Tinkerbell… no one escapes falling in love/hate, and being forgotten. And all the while Peter, untouched by time, remains haunted by an emptiness that leaves him crying in the night.
It’s actually a terrifying vision, and not as hopeful as we might want it to be by the end. The final words of the story read, “…and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” Barrie is echoing Kurt Vonnegut’s “so it goes” fatalism [Yes, even though Barrie’s book came first—it’s an echo in reverse!], and driving home his point about why every generation of human beings makes the same mistakes as the previous one. Neverland itself exists in dreams, but Peter and Wendy reminds us that nightmares are there too.
5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Another grown-up story masquerading as a children’s book, this brilliant little bedtime story features a boy prince who lives by himself on an asteroid. He goes off to have adventures on tiny worlds before finally befriending an aviator on Earth. Now is a good time to read it so that you can be a hipster about it when the movie comes out.
But really it’s about love and faith, and how there is more to things than what you can see.
The love story is between the prince and the only flower on his tiny asteroid. To a child it might seem like a cute and fanciful relationship, but there is a rich and wistful sadness there. The Prince says, “I should have judged her by her acts and not by her words… I should never have fled. I should have guessed at the tenderness behind her poor ruses.” That theme of seeing with the heart beyond what lies on the surface of things is at the core of the book’s lesson.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” –the fox (Antoine Saint-Exupéry)
This becomes crucial by the story’s climax, in which a character is asked to believe that there is something truer than visible, empirical, physical death. Anyone that has seen a loved one die and has held onto the belief that somewhere they still exist will relate to that feeling of two realities colliding, and being forced to choose which is more real: physical death or eternal life. It’s a moment that will haunt anyone who reads it, kids and grown-ups alike.
Put another way: “…for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)
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