As a parent and an author, I spend a lot of time thinking about children’s books. It has recently occurred to me that as adults, we have much to learn from children’s books. These might not be the lessons the authors hoped to impart, but they are important, nonetheless.
I remember getting so frustrated in high school when we had to do assignments discussing with what an author really meant when she wrote whatever. It felt like we were saying the author’s novel about two people falling in love, facing challenges, then ending up together, or not, isn’t enough. Instead, the author must have been making a commentary on the human condition and the meaninglessness of life or something important. That always felt presumptuous.
Now, it seems I am saying nearly the same thing — that there are unintended lessons to be found in children’s books — and the irony is not lost on me. The difference, I’ll argue, is that some of the most important lessons adults can learn from children’s books have little to do with the book’s main message. Instead, they are reminders about what life is like for a child — when monsters live under the bed, when all the happiness in your life seems to revolve around who talks to you at school, and when anything is possible.
Below you will find 10 truly random children’s books presented in alphabetical order. These are picture books through chapter books, some quite old and others more recent, from well-known and lesser-known authors. There are sure to be some titles you remember fondly, or at least, accurately due to the one-hundred thousand times you read it aloud at bedtime. For each, I have summarized the basic idea of the book, what the expected lessons for children are, and then have included some of the unexpected lessons adults can learn.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Alexander is having a bad day — gum getting stuck in his hair, having trouble at school, the dentist finding a cavity, fighting with his brother, and on and on. It never gets better. He contemplates moving to Australia (running away from his problems), but in the end, his mom tells him that some days are just like that — for everyone, everywhere.
According to Teaching Kids Philosophy, “the book addresses issues such as moods and emotion, envy, fight and flight responses, the concept of art, and making mistakes.” That’s quite a lot for one small picture book, but this book delivers, not only helping kids realize they are not alone when it feels everything is going wrong, but providing lots of opportunities for parents to discuss emotions and reactions with their kids.
One of the unique lessons for adults in this fun read-aloud is to keep in mind that kids sometimes have overwhelmingly bad days, too. We tend to get caught up in the gravity of our own adult problems, wishing they could be as simple as a forgotten dessert or getting soap in our eyes and may tend to minimize what our child has been through. Sometimes adults don’t actually hear the message behind the words. As Alexander points out repeatedly, “no one even answered.”
If You Give A Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff
This is a wonderful picture book following the logical progression of what happens when you give a mouse a cookie. For instance, he’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it, which will lead to the need for a napkin, which leads to checking a mirror for a milk mustache and finding his hair needs trimming, which leads to needing a broom to clean up the hair….etc. It is a fun read that illustrates cause and effect.
Parents may see themselves in the boy who is running around trying to fulfill the mouse’s desires and their child in the mouse’s constant demands. The unexpected lesson for adults is realizing the mouse is not trying to make life challenging for the boy, his requests are all completely logical, each flowing from the current activity. Our kids are often the same way. They are not trying to drive us crazy. It’s just that we don’t always track their logic.
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park
In the first of this classic chapter book series about the exuberant Junie B. Jones, the strong-willed kindergartener is nervous about riding the school bus. On her first day, she finds she doesn’t like it, so she hides in a supply closet at the end of the school day so she doesn’t have to get on the bus again. Being alone in the school does not turn out to be as fun as she’d hoped.
Parents tend to either love these books or hate them. Junie B. is rude and uses a fair amount of incorrect grammar. She’s also a kindergartener, so we can’t really expect perfection. These books are super relatable for children and provide great opportunities for parents to discuss Junie’s bad decisions and to correct her grammar.
A hidden lesson for parents is that sometimes it’s okay to defy the status quo and do the unexpected. How often do we get dragged down by others’ expectations, unhappy in our own lives and wish we could break free? Maybe we should do something out of the norm just as an experiment to see what happens. On this surface, this didn’t seem to work well for Junie, but in the long-run, she learned some lessons and ended up finding a way to enjoy what she’d previously hated.
My Dog Sees Ghosts by Dakota Duncan
In this first installment of a slightly spooky chapter book adventure series, a sister and brother must brave the local haunted house to get their runaway dog back. As educator AllDoneMonkey says, “This is a book with a double twist ending — just when you think you have it all figured out, and the mystery of the supposedly haunted house has been solved, you discover that ghosts really do exist, just not in the way you expect!”
For children, this book contains lessons about courage, working together and loyalty, but for adults, the take-aways are more about remembering how big and detailed the imaginations of kids can be. A mysterious creaking sound and a door that opens itself might seem like normal events around an old, poorly maintained house, but for kids, they are clear signs of something creepy, and sometimes, the kids are right.
Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner
In this chapter book, a time-traveling golden retriever, Ranger, is transported to 1850 where he meets a young boy named Sam whose family is migrating west on the Oregon Trail. Ranger helps the family face many dangers of the time, while readers get a dose of history woven into the adventure.
The lessons for kids lie mainly in the historically accurate depiction of the times, and there is much for adults to learn, as well. One of the best unexpected lessons for adults in this book is about working through disappointment. Ranger has been trained to be a Search and Rescue dog, but can’t pass his test because he keeps getting distracted by squirrels. It’s his curiosity and nose for trouble that causes him to find the first aid kit that enables him to travel back in time. Sometimes we don’t end up with the job we’d hoped to get, or a relationship doesn’t work out, but a takeaway lesson here is that sometimes losses can lead to good things.
Ronaldo: Rudi’s Birthday Extravaganza by Maxine Sylvester
In this third book of the Ronaldo The Flying Reindeer series, Ronaldo helps his injured friend Rudi brave a doctor’s visit and helps a local baker who needs assistance, all while preparing for an ancient tradition called the Reindeer Flyover. This captivating illustrated adventure teaches lessons of friendship, community and owning one’s own mistakes.
One of the lessons for adults in Ronaldo, is one about kids overeating, especially sweets, and healthy eating habits. Ronaldo loves sweets and one afternoon is given multiple pieces of his favorite cake as a reward for good behavior. He eats all of them and ends up feeling quite sick. Medical News Today points out the importance of helping children listen to their bodies rather than social cues when forming eating habits. While the book doesn’t go into lessons on eating, Ronaldo’s behavior is a good reminder that it is a significant issue for children as well as adults.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
In this first of the wildly popular series, Greg Heffley faces the challenges of middle school while trying to become more popular. His attempts are usually misguided, fail horribly, and often result in his best friend, Rowley, being hurt.
Interestingly, as far as moral lessons imparted, kids are learning about how not to act and understand the main character is not a good role model. As Scholastic points out, there are many things children can learn from questionable characters, including critical thinking and simply enjoying an entertaining book.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the messages for adults is remembering the painful struggles of middle school. Greg’s desire to be popular, wanting to fit in, trying to do the right thing but somehow repeatedly missing the mark are all part of the middle school experience. As parents, we certainly hope our kids are making better decisions than Greg, but when they don’t, a bit of empathy may help you navigate the rough waters in which your child is immersed.
The Magic Treehouse: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne
Another first book of a well-loved series, this is the tale of Annie and Jack who travel back in time via a mysterious treehouse. Once there, they encounter a variety of dinosaurs, danger and the need to find their way back home. The lessons taught are both obvious, such as the dinosaur facts, and less so, like persistence, confidence and family loyalty.
One of my favorite lessons for adults from this book, indeed the entire series, is a reminder of how capable children can be when given the opportunities. I’m not suggesting we send kids onto harrowing expeditions on their own and hope they survive using their own wits and stamina. Instead, I am saying that kids often want and need to solve their own problems sometimes. It teaches them self-reliance and builds self-confidence. It’s not always necessary to swoop in and save our children, sometimes, their own ideas and the cool stuff in their backpacks will be all they need.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
This classic picture book recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and has sold almost 50 million copies worldwide. It is the simple and fun-to-read tale of a caterpillar who eats his way through a week, enjoying new things each day. He eventually builds a cocoon and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.
In a story on NPR, author Eric Carle is quoted as saying the tale is one of hope. “Children need hope. You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.”
For adults, one of the unintended lessons is about art. Carle’s distinctive collage style has become well-known but is not necessarily what was expected from a children’s book, either now, or 50 years ago. I think this challenges us to try something unique and find our own voice rather than copying others, no matter what our field of interest.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
This is another classic picture book that almost everyone knows and loves. It is the story of Max, who due to his bad behavior is sent to bed without dinner. While in his room, he dreams up a world of wild things where he is in control and becomes the wildest thing of all. In the end, Max arrives back in his own room where his mom has left his still-hot dinner.
Psychologists have often praised this book for its emotional complexity and willingness to address topics previously ignored. The British Psychological Society says about Where the Wild Things Are, “In straightforward, undisguised fashion, Sendak’s work has addressed problems as monumental for children as being in a rage at mother, relating to a depressed or emotionally unavailable mother, or coming to terms with a mother who cannot or will not recognise her child’s concerns or state of mind.” The book illustrates that scary emotions can be tamed and in the end children can feel safe and loved even after having been through an emotional storm.
Adults have already read numerous lessons for children into this book, but what about the lessons for us? Maybe the most important lesson in this book is not hidden at all and it is the same lesson we want children to learn. Sometimes we lose our tempers and experience frightening emotions, but we don’t have to let those experiences rule our lives. We can choose healthier, more satisfying ways forward. That’s an excellent lesson for adults and children alike.