Over the last few nights I read classic book The Little Prince to Byron. I had offered to read it numerous times and he always protested, but I wore him down. He listened patiently and quietly. He commented on the pictures but rarely the text. However, last night he didn’t want me to stop reading and we saw it through the end. When asked later how he liked it, he said “It was actually pretty good. I didn’t think it would be that good.” But how much the book’s profound truths affected him, I don’t know.
Maybe that’s a strange thing to say of a book that is explicitly about what children and understand and adults do not: the difference between a hat and a snake digesting an elephant, for instance. And the satire on various kinds of grown-up, like the businessman and the geographer, gets at how we self-important adults must seem to children. Yet The Little Prince is also a story about possessive love, and about loss, and about the devastating sadness of growing up. These are aspects that children must not grasp.
One idea I have been turning over in my head for two days, and which eluded me as a child, is that The Little Prince is also about the very act of creating art for children. Just after meeting the narrator, the little prince orders him to draw a sheep. The narrator complies, though several in a row are rejected. And even when the prince finally accepts one, he voices concern that the sheep will eat his flower: an anthropomorphized being on his home planet whom he loves and cares for absolutely. So the narrator draws a muzzle.
The narrator does not question that the sheep really exists and might do harm. Indeed, he worries at the end that he has not drawn the muzzle correctly, that the sheep will escape and eat the flower, and that the little prince will be bereft.
Over the past year I have followed the roiling debate about children’s books and the harm they might do; I have been skeptical at times at the insistence that books can do real harm, like a blow to the head. And so it is revelatory to read this book. I marvel at how the child insists on a sheep despite the risks: children intuitively know what art they need. I marvel, too, at how the narrator accepts responsibility for the dangers his art poses, and worries later that his carelessness will lead to heartbreak and misery.
I have never had such conviction in the realness of my art, nor have I stared up at the stars and wondered if my sheep has eaten a flower. Perhaps if I had such convictions and concerns, I would have written a book as magical and timeless as The Little Prince.