Grown-Up Lessons From 13 Picture Books

Around here, we’re beyond pretending not to appreciate (or obsess over?) kiddie books. As we all know, picture books, much like cartoons (hello Adventure Time/SpongeBob SquarePants/every Disney movie ever), are not just for children to enjoy. But unlike the previously mentioned shows and movies, the pleasure of revisiting literary childhood favorites lies not in spotting icky sexual innuendos, but in appreciating the playful poignancy of these lovable reads.

Admittedly, I sometimes attempt to plumb the depths (whether real or imagined) of these virtuous works, casting my overeducated eye over each innuendo-laden (again, whether real or imagined) turn of phrase, each questionably posed watercolored image. This usually results in me feeling guilty about ruining what should remain sacred with my corrupted, adult sensibility. But what always happens is that I learn something new from each re-read — something that does indeed lie beyond the target audience’s limited scope of understanding. The real beauty of picture books is in their ageless wisdom; and that the simplicity of their theses can truly transcend time and experience.

These 13 books are perfect, beautifully gift-wrapped packages of both aesthetic and literary joy; and what they had to teach us at age 5 will still be useful at 25. We just may interpret those lessons a little differently now.


The story: The most beautiful fish in the sea refuses to play with the other, boring-looking fish. But he becomes so lonely that he finally caves: he gives his sparkly scales to the other fish, and learns to find happiness through friendship, not beauty.

The lesson: No one is so beautiful that they are exempt from being kind. Don’t be a dick, even if you look like Adriana Lima. Also, apparently, bribery sometimes works.

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The story: Sal joins her mother in picking blueberries to can for the winter. Sal, ever a dreamer, lags behind her mother and joins up with a mother bear and her cub, who also forage through the idyllic Maine countryside, stocking up for their winter hibernation.

The lesson: Farm-to-table eating was not invented in Williamsburg circa 2010.

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The story: A boy very selflessly gives a mouse a cookie, prompting an attendant list of demands from the greedy (but quite adorable) little rodent.

The lesson: A classic example of the Diderot effect. Be happy with what you have! Or, just exercise some self-discipline and don’t go to Topshop if you know you’ll end up buying more than that one sweater you wanted. And if you discover a mouse in your apartment, don't try to make it your pet.

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The story: Chrysanthemum loves her unusual name; that is, until she gets to grade school, where a group of plain-named meanies bully the young mouse about her super-long moniker. Chrysanthemum's beloved music teacher saves the day: Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle is free-spirited, fun-loving, and teaches Chrysanthemum the beauty of self-acceptance.

The lesson: In this Golden Age of untraditional names, you can consider yourself lucky if your parents named you after an inanimate object. To all of us Sarahs/Rebeccas/Jens: let your other freak flags fly. Accept and exploit what sets you apart.

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The story: After a baby bat, Stellaluna, becomes separated from her mother, a mother bird takes the orphan into her nest and raises the bat as one of her own. Stellaluna learns the ways of the birds; and, one day, a bat confronts Stellaluna about her strange, very un-bat-like behavior. Stellaluna explains the story of her adoption, only to discover that this bat is her birth mother. Stellaluna is excited to reunite with her birth mother, but continues to love her adopted family as much as she did before.

The lesson: Stellaluna celebrates the particular beauty of the blended family. Your adult self has also likely realized that "family" doesn't have to stop with the people with whom you share DNA. The awesome thing about being a grown-up is that you can choose whom you consider your family, whether it's a friend, a mentor, a SO, or a beloved spinning instructor.

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The story: Strega Nona, the resident wise woman of her rural Calabrian village, hires a local man, Big Anthony, to help ease her growing workload. One day, the lumpish Big Anthony watches Strega Nona perform a super cool spell that produces massive bowls of pasta. Soon after, Strega Nona is summoned to a neighboring village, leaving the town under Big Anthony's care. The apprentice tries out the witch's pasta-making spell, which promptly goes awry; the town slowly drowns in a sea of pappardelle until Strega Nona returns to save the day. As punishment, Strega Nona makes Big Anthony eat all of the offending noodles.

The lesson: Perfecting new skills takes time, patience, and, most importantly, a quelling of the ego. Don't go for eka pada koundinyasana before you've nailed crow pose. And unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much pasta: take it slow with Olive Garden's all-you-can-eat deals.

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The story: One day, a boring little chameleon happens upon a lively zoo, populated by beautiful, majestic animals. The chameleon wishes to be like the animals he observes: big like a polar bear; fast like a deer; all-seeing like a giraffe. All of his wishes are granted, and the chameleon morphs into a creepy amalgamated creature, like something straight out of ancient mythology. The chameleon is unhappy with his new appearance: he hardly recognizes himself anymore. He wishes to be a plain old chameleon again, and his wish is granted.

The lesson: Playing around with your appearance is a fun and, for many, a necessary mode of self-exploration. But at a certain point, try to streamline your aesthetic (and your closet). There are few things in adult life as satisfying as settling on an external appearance that fully reflects your internal self.

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The story: Frances loves bread and jam. She loves it so much that she begs her mom and dad to make her bread and jam for every single meal, every single day. Her parents indulge her demands, making Frances a very happy little raccoon (she's a raccoon, right?) — that is, until the rest of her family enjoys a lavish spaghetti-and-meatballs dinner. Frances sobs her way out of her toast-walled prison and returns to a balanced diet.

The lesson: Those 1980s MTV commercials had it wrong: sometimes, too much is enough. Don't go all Dorian Gray on yourself by shamelessly indulging in your poison of choice (whiskey-ginger? Hostess cupcakes? Lounging in bed watching Buffy for hours at at time?) until you can't stomach it any longer. Treat yo'self! But don't spoil the delicacy of pleasure by making it your daily fare.

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The story: Spunky, independent Princess Smartypants is happy being a bachelorette, kickin' it with her pet dragons and shacking up with her rich parents. But, being pretty, rich, royal, etc., her traditional parents pressure Smartypants to find a husband. The rough-and-tumble princess sets up a series of impossible tasks for her many suitors to endure (e.g. retrieving her ring from the castle's shark-infested pond; taking the Queen shopping), promising to marry whomever accomplishes his tasks successfully. None of those lily-livered vassals could complete their missions, leaving Smartypants a very happy single lady.

The lesson: Never settle for a significant other who looks good on paper, but doesn't challenge you IRL. And never underestimate the power of a badass leather jacket.

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The story: Leo the little tiger is seriously lagging, development-wise: he can't read; he can't write; he can't talk. Leo's dad is worried, but Leo's mom assures her husband that Leo will be okay — they just need to give him some time and space. And, sure enough, once Dad gives his son a break, Leo blooms!

The lesson: Our parents will always worry about us. If you are suffering from Overbearing Mom/Dad Syndrome, just tell them (very sweetly) to get off your back for a second so you can just do you.

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The story: A kiddie-friendly Rorschach test: white blobs in the shape of a tree; an ice cream cone; and woodland animals turn out not to be what they appear, just innocuous clouds in the sky.

The lesson: Sometimes (or lots of times), our brains are our own worst enemies. We need to take a step back to see what's real and what's a figment of our overactive imaginations. So, no: just because he didn't text you back within the hour doesn't mean he thinks you're boring, clingy, smelly, etc.

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The story: Lacey has no clean clothes to wear to school, and she totally panics (rightfully so). Lacey's mom forces her to wear a shirt emblazoned with the words Kiss Me! I'm Perfect! — an unwanted present from Lacey's kooky grandma — so Lacey freaks out again (rightfully so, again). But Lacey has no choice, and she wears the ridiculous shirt. On Lacey's way to school, the little girl is accosted by kisses from literate animals who heed her shirt's command. Then, when she gets to school, a boy in her class kisses her, too — to which, you guessed it, she totally freaks out.

The lesson: Our clothes say a lot about us. Wear whatever the hell you want — just be sure you're giving off vibes that truly reflect how you feel. And don't put off doing your laundry. Adults are not immune to clothing-related panic attacks.

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The story: A young bunny expresses to his mother his quixotic desire to run away from home. Mom listens patiently, but urges that wherever baby bunny goes, she will follow. Then she offers him a carrot.

The lesson: 1) You will never escape your mother, and 2) she will always want to feed you. And that's why you love her.

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Image: Gordon/flickr