This week, one of our favorite children’s book authors and illustrators of all time, Chris Van Allsburg, turned 63. Allsburg’s books were formative literature for us as children, so to celebrate the author’s birthday, we were inspired to think about all the life lessons we learned from children’s books — both picture books and early chapter books — that still stick with us. After all, the things you absorb at a young age can form the foundation for the person you will become, so we think it’s nice to look back and see if we can trace our morality to an evil French dentist and his dog. Click through for some of the life lessons we learned from our favorite children’s books — and let us know which morals you’ve held onto in the comments.
The Sweetest Fig , Chris Van Allsburg
The Sweetest Fig isn’t Van Allsburg’s most well-known work (that would have to be The Polar Express or, of course, Jumanji), but it was one of this writer’s all-time favorites as a child. Monsieur Bibot, a cold-hearted dentist who is especially mean to his dog Marcel, grudgingly accepts two figs from a strange woman as payment for extracting a tooth. “These figs are very special,” she whispers. “They can make your dreams come true.” And make his dreams come true they do — whatever his dreams may happen to be on any given night — but Marcel has other ideas.
Life Lesson: Above all else, be kind. Also, your dog is never thinking what you think he’s thinking.
Where the Wild Things Are , Maurice Sendak
We feel like everyone has read this book at one time in their lives, but in case you haven’t — Max, dressed in his wolf suit, makes so much mischief that he’s sent to his room without supper. From there he journeys to the land of the Wild Things, where he is crowned “king of all wild things” and leads the beasts in a wild rumpus. But even the king of all wild things gets homesick eventually.
Life Lesson: There are fearsome monsters out there, but if you stare into all their yellow eyes without blinking once, you can tame them and temper them and get home before supper gets cold.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales , Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
This collection of twisted and re-imagined fairy tales is another of our favorites, featuring Little Red Riding Hood, the Ugly Duckling, and the Gingerbread Man as you’ve never seen them before — as Little Red Running Shorts, the Really Ugly Duckling, and of course, the Stinky Cheese Man — not to mention new friends like Cinderumplestiltskin.
Life Lesson: Don’t be afraid to question the cultural dogma. You might like what you come up with.
The Hundred Dresses , Eleanor Estes
In this quiet but lovely book, Wanda Petronski is a young Polish girl attending school in America, who is constantly ostracized for being weird and different — not to mention the fact that she wears the same faded blue dress every single day. When teased, Wanda claims she has a hundred beautiful dresses in her closet, but the other girls immediately strike down this lie. When their class holds a contest to see who can design the most beautiful dress, Wanda submits one hundred gorgeous drawings, but when her awed classmates try to find her and apologize, her father has already moved her away.
Life Lesson: You never know what other people have in their closets.
The Giving Tree , Shel Silverstein
In Silverstein’s most famous work, a tree and a boy grow old together, the tree giving all she has to offer and only delighting in the boy’s happiness, the boy taking and taking until there’s nothing left but a stump.
Life Lesson: When we were kids, we thought this was a story about idiot compassion. Now, it just makes us feel grateful to our parents.
Harold and the Purple Crayon , Crockett Johnson
“One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight,” this book begins. But there is no moonlight, and no street, so four year old Harold creates them (and many other adventures) for himself, armed only with his trusty oversized purple crayon.
Life Lesson: With a little creativity and a steady hand, you can make your entire world.
Madeleine , Ludwig Bemelmans
“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…” So begins every story about Madeline, Bemelman’s adorable, spunky heroine always getting into and out of trouble in a Catholic boarding school in Paris.
Life Lesson: Whether you’re the smallest, the tallest, the bravest, or the strangest, there’s nothing wrong with stepping out of your straight line every once in a while.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day , Judith Viorst
This book is exactly what it sounds like — a chronicle of the ludicrously bad day of one Alexander, who becomes progressively more irritated as things don’t go his way.
Life Lesson: Some days are like that. Even in Australia.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , Roald Dahl
In only one of Dahl’s many classics, Charlie Bucket wins the chance to see the inside of Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory along with several other distinctly less-deserving children. Along the way, several accidents lead to the other children being ejected from the tour, but our Charlie may just make it all the way to the end — whether that’s a good thing or not.
Life Lesson: No matter what your vice is — gluttony, avarice, gum-chewing — be prepared to curb it or pay the price.
The Cat in the Hat , Dr. Seuss
In what is arguably Dr. Seuss’ most celebrated work, a mischievous cat imposes himself on two kids whose mother has left them alone for the day. After a great deal of chaos, nonsense and balancing tricks, the children get the cat under control, and he sneaks out just before their mother comes home — though not before cleaning up so no one will ever know.
Life Lesson: If you let oddly-dressed strangers into your home when your mother’s not there, they will entertain you and clean up after themselves and everything will be fine. No, wait.