Children’s storybooks have the fabulous ability to be the most unpretentious and charming stories you’ll ever lay your hands on. They also happen to echo the category of higher concept parable and allegory without being overtly didactic or dull.
In fact, they thrive on humour, and the best usually expose that knife-edge between survival and bliss which reflects the realities of life in their purest form. Less Oliver Twist or The Jungle Book, these classics heavily rely on their illustrations, but I believe that at their heart is an enlightening story, a story that has the potential to connect us to the divine as much as a Sufi poem or Zen Koan.
Here are six children story books with esoteric meanings
Although Theodor Geisel didn’t begin his books with a moral in mind, he also didn’t mind admitting he was ‘subversive as hell’, and many of his other books carry themes that might be familiar to somebody well-versed in anarchy. Green Eggs and Ham however, despite being fourth bestselling hardback children’s book of all time, did not appear to have an ulterior motive.
The story centres around Sam-I-am, who gets it into his head that he must convince an unnamed character to try the repulsive-sounding dish of green eggs and ham, a familiar and apparently innocent thematic of ‘you won’t know until you try it’ that plagues both adults and children during childhood.
Far from being political, Green Eggs and Ham can be likened to more spiritual and high concept themes which depict a Doctor Faustus shoulder angel-type scenario or the polarity between the ego and our higher aspect. The latter is represented by Sam-I-Am who lovingly guides us to try something no matter how much we resist.
The impressive use of just 50 words (the result of a bet between Geisel and his publisher that he could write a book that used less words than The Cat in the Hat) does nothing to curtail the lengths the book’s unnamed character goes to resist this offer to try something new; he goes from dismissive, to angry, to downright aggressive before finally giving in to discover that he likes it after all.
Julia Donaldson’s hugely popular books include The Gruffalo, Stickman and Tabby Mctat but one of the classics has to be Room on the Broom.
Subverting the archetype of the evil or mischievous witch, Donaldson has this one so kind she can’t help but accept the appeals for help from every creature she comes across which leads to her broom being broken and a tryst with a dragon, but rewards her in the end when those she helped come back to rescue her.
The moral of the story could also be seen as the need to modernize and be flexible to allow more to come on board with you, a message we are probably all feeling with the recent changes in global events.
Perhaps because it is so delightful to read, one can’t help but wonder why exactly this storybook has sold so many copies worldwide, but it might have something to do with the more the merrier theme, or the aesthetically unpleasing but heart of gold figure of the witch. Whatever it is this is definitely a classic.
Giraffe’s Can’t Dance
Two million copies sold worldwide, Giraffe’s Can’t Dance draws on a familiar school-or-work-like setting where the majority tell us we can’t do something because they have been conditioned into thinking that Giraffe’s can’t dance without ever giving poor Gerald the opportunity to try.
OK so he’s clumsy and has knees that bend the wrong way, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to join in the jungle dance, right?
The climax where Gerald discovers he CAN and IS dancing is enough to stir up even the most solemn of adults reading this delightful story and is akin to an enlightenment or Eureka moment – I CAN do it!
And the guru-like Cricket who urges him to ‘listen to the swaying trees’ is definitely performing some sort of meditative technique on Gerald. The result is that Gerald is able to calm his critical mind, representative of the crowd, long enough to hear his own brand of music thus connecting with the Whole and wowing everybody! Gerald becomes the Pioneer or rebel and proves the conditioning of the jungle to be dead wrong. Read it even if you don’t have children.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
A lesser well-known Dr Seuss book, this sequel to Cat in the Hat has the apparent function of teaching children their A-B-C when the Cat in the Hat requires help to tidy up (yet another) mess he has made.
He proceeds to pull ‘Little Cat A’ out of his hat and goes on to get the whole alphabet (who grow smaller with each letter) until he finally pulls out an invisible Z (so small he’s impossible to see), who has ‘Voom’ in his hat, which then explodes the mess away and does all the work Sally and Dick were trying to accomplish (and were being distracted from) in the first place.
The charm of this book, as well as the usual poetic meter of anapestic tetrameter which makes it so pleasing to read aloud, is the message to go with the flow. A step up from the first book, the Cat in the Hat resists Dick’s fears about the fact they are trying to get rid of the pink cat ink instead of doing their work.
It’s like the boy has his whole day already set out in his head and is resisting the Cat’s ploy for fun. They still get it all done in the end and more, showing children that sometimes they just need to trust and the universe will sort it out for them. Even if they take the long way around something, the goal never changes, but we might as well have some fun (and make more mess) along the way. Everything’s going to be OK.
Another Julia Donaldson, Stickman spans the seasons from early spring when a ‘stickman’ gets lost and becomes increasingly desperate as he is mistaken for everything other than what he is.
A message to not let others tell us who we are, the story comes full circle when Stickman appears to be facing death (asleep in a fireplace) when he rescues Father Christmas who then sees him rightly home.
A slightly bizarre twist I’ll admit, but the book successfully carries the themes of having compassion for all creatures and never assuming that something doesn’t have feelings just because it appears – to you – to be an inanimate object.
Where The Wild Things Are
I felt compelled to add Where the Wild Things Are to the list because it’s so popular, although I personally much prefer the illustrations to the story itself.
Voted as the number one picture book in a 2012 survey of School Library Journal readers, you can’t dispute its huge appeal to children.
Perhaps it’s the idea of becoming a beast – no, King of the beasts – for a few hours, honouring that inexplicable of feelings we all entertain from time to time when we just feel prickly and like submerging ourselves in our own world in a reverie fit for any hermit or child itching to be free of confines of their parents.
English author, Francis Spufford suggested that the book was “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger”. Whatever the reason for the books success, I think we would all like to explore our shadow side from time to time by dressing up in a wolf onesie and commandeering a pack of monsters, riding them through the jungle until we are so tired we go home…. to bed.
And what better way to enter the world of the subconscious than reading a children’s storybook? Is this what they’re designed for; to fire off the child’s imagination or gently slip them into the night-time hour by exhausting their final fling of creativity until another day? Despite the need to be present with children, I still feel the storybook has a place on the family bookshelf… for now at least.