Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reading With My Kids: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Source of book: We own this.

Earlier this year, I read A Sense of Life by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. At that time, I had somehow missed reading his best known book, The Little Prince. Since we happened to own it, I decided to go ahead and read it with the kids, and see what they thought.

Like many timeless “children’s” books, this one isn’t really written for children only, but for adults with a sense of wonder as well. I might venture to say that the author may have intended this book for adults, but that it nevertheless was embraced by younger readers.

The saga of the little prince who visits the author as he works to repair his disabled airplane while marooned in the desert pokes gentle fun at the way that humans tend to obsess over things that are really not that important. Power, wealth, status, and even knowledge without love. These are the things that perhaps appeal to the adult reader. For the kids, there is a pleasant dose of absurdity.

The little prince, after all, comes from a very small planet, with a single flower. It also has three small volcanoes, which he keeps clean, even though one is extinct (but you never know…) He wishes for a sheep to eat the baobab seedlings so they do not take over his planet, but he must protect his flower.

In his journey to earth, he passes other planets with the objects of satire as their single residence, before finding his way to earth.

Saint-Exupéry illustrates the book himself, with whimsical drawings. The first shows the author’s drawing (purportedly done as a child) of a boa constrictor which has swallowed an elephant. (Outside and inside views.) The adults all think the exterior view looks like a hat, but the little prince understands. The children thought this was hilarious. They also found the volcanos to be quite amusing. 

At the center of the story is the prince’s taming of a fox. The fox has to explain what taming means.

"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."
"'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."

Taming is the development of love.

And then, as he departs, leaving himself and the fox forlorn:

"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
"What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."
"It is the time I have wasted for my rose--" said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . ."

It is that time “wasted” that has made the relationship. The prince’s rose is demanding and a bit self absorbed - hardly perfect. But he has invested in her, and thus he has come to love her. This is why I believe my children are the very best in the world. Because I have wasted time on them. All those hours changing diapers were necessary, but not exactly pleasant or “useful.” But they made the children mine.

I think we tend to forget this essential property of love. It is easy to have an academic, abstract love for others. Anyone can “love your enemies” this way, and anyone can “love the sinners” too. But to “waste” time, not expecting a change in exchange for the efforts? That’s harder. But actual love requires this. I’m kind of at the point, I guess, of doubting whether love can exist apart from a relationship. Can we really claim to love others while holding them at an arm’s length until they change their behavior to suit our preferences? [link] Will those we “love” experience it as love? And that is really the question. The prince’s flower isn’t “worthy” of love, but he loves her nonetheless. Just like he loves the fox and the fox loves him, even though the fox knows it will end in tears when they separate.

Saint-Exupéry’s writing always has a combination of childlike wonder and an aching sadness to it. The root of life was somehow bitter to him, and he seemed particularly sensitive to the suffering brought on by the two world wars he lived through. The Little Prince brings to life his yearning that one and all could recapture the state of wonder that we lost when we became adults and concerned ourselves with things that didn’t matter. In some ways, it is a restatement of the words of Christ: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


  1. This is a lovely post, and I enjoyed it so much. I think I read this book years ago, but I am not certain' perhaps I have just read about it. I must add it to my reading list.

    1. It's really a delightful book, well worth purchasing.