grownups from the inside and the outside

A boy draws a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant (from the outside). He proudly displays it to the adults, but they see only a hat.  

So he draws another picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. This time from the inside.

The adults advise him to give up drawing boa constrictors of any kind and to devote himself to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar instead.

“Thus it was that I gave up a magnificent career as a painter at the age of six.”

The boy becomes a pilot and throughout his career spends much time with grownups.

“I have seen them at very close quarters which I’m afraid has not greatly enhanced my opinion of them. Whenever I met one who seemed reasonably clear-sighted to me, I showed them my drawing No 1, which I had kept, as an experiment. I wanted to find out whether he or she was truly understanding. But the answer was always: ‘It is a hat.’ So I gave up mentioning boa constrictors or primeval forests or stars. I would bring myself down to his or her level and talk about bridge, golf, politics and neckties. And the grown-ups would be very pleased to have met such a sensible person.”

So begins Antoine de St.-Expury’s, 1943 classic, The Little Princeabout a pilot who crashes his plane in the desert and meets a prince who tells him he has travelled from another planet. The prince recounts his adventures, the strange people he met on his journey, the flower he loves and the baobab trees that threaten it.

The story, read as a children’s book is simple.

The real joy, however, is to read it as an adult book, taking pleasure in the satire, the layers of meaning in every sentence, and the revelations about the human condition, all best appreciated through the prism of age.

Children will miss the point entirely.

And that, of course, is the point.

Adults and children see the world differently. But who can say which is the ‘true’ perspective? Bottom line: we have much to learn from each other.

This is the kind of book that ought to be read regularly, and at different ages, as a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously and to hang on to some of that magical childlike wisdom we all once had, ensuring that we can at least entertain the possibility that what appears in every way to be a hat, may very well be a boa constrictor—from the outside.

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