I recently came across an article about the “lessons” that can be learned from classic children’s books. Somewhere between the piece mocking The Very Hungry Caterpillar for glamorizing gluttony and criticizing Matlida for favoring magical powers over parents, I moved past my indignation at my favorite childhood books being knocked down and stopped to consider what lasting lessons I truly learned while reading growing up.
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is one of the best examples of a children’s story that seamlessly weaves an important life lesson into a child-friendly tale. Although a case can be made that the tree’s selflessness was her downfall, isn’t the boy’s journey through life sadder? He takes and he takes from the tree, but in the end the canoe, the house, everything he’s able to get from the tree doesn’t last him. All the tree has left to give is her love and support, which is all he needs in the end.
There’s a fine line between not giving enough and giving too much, which The Giving Tree shows. If the boy had cared more about what he needed than what he wanted, he wouldn’t have used the tree, his friend. Through the boy’s mistakes I learned what it takes to be a good friend and how selfish acts won’t make me happy in the end.
E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was the first, but certainly not last, book that made me cry. While the sad tale teaches us about loss, the real moral of the story lies within the friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. Unlike the friendship between the boy and the tree, Charlotte and Wilbur are loyal to each other. Whereas I learned how not to act from the boy, these two friends taught me how I should. Charlotte looks after Wilbur, an act he repays by looking after her children after she dies. Her death may have been heartbreaking, but it was a lesson within itself. Life is hard. There will be setbacks, but life continues. Following the two friends on their journey, I learned about compassion.
It would be impossible to talk about books I grew up reading without mentioning Nancy Drew. With an eight-decade history behind her, I was able to grow up with the teen detective. She may have been more of a role model for girls, but her impact could leave a lasting impression on anyone. Influential women such as Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sonia Sotomayor have all listed Nancy Drew as one of their role models. With each mystery I solved alongside Nancy, I learned about the pursuit of truth and justice. I found the courage to pursue my goals and never squash my curiosity.
Published in 1964, The Giving Tree is the newest of these three. The story is still very much present on the bookshelves of children. Sixty-two years after its publication, the same can be said for Charlotte’s Web and Nancy Drew has been a role model for the past eighty-four years, crossing over into other forms of media including television, movies, and video games. There is a reason these books have remained in the hearts of their readers long after they’ve grown.
Some of these lessons may seem simplistic, but they’re important life lessons that last. They build the foundation for us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.