Written by James Thurber
Cartoonist and humorist who also wrote ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and was quoted to have said ‘well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?’.
Illustrated by Joohee Yoon
Printer and illustrator from Massachusetts who provides visuals for The New York Times and Washington Post.
(not to be confused with Joo Ji Hoon the star of the middling South Korean movie ‘the Naked Kitchen’).
A parable towards the pointlessness of war. Tiger and Lion both look to claim their role as King of the jungle. Animals take sides and fight it out. The war leaves a victor and a blunt moral: ‘you can’t very well be the king of the beasts if there aren’t any’.
What makes it shelf-worthy?
The Tiger Who Would Be King uses selective, declarative statements to guide young readers through its simple narrative yet consistently resonates with big ideas and issues of real importance. This book provides a starting point for thinking about the morality of war, and questioning if the ends justify the violent means.
It’s refreshing to read a children’s book that uses allegory without getting itself tangled. You can read the story at its most basic form; about a Tiger and a Lion,or as a simple message on violence (ie – it’s usually not worth it), or as a Nietzsche-esque discussion on constructive/destructive rebellion.
Joohee Yoon’s illustration also is beautiful. The story itself has been around since 1927, but Yoon’s photolithography graphics have lifted it to another level, and thus it finds itself here in our collection of greats. Yoon’s style combines a classic feel with punchy modern graphic which works well alongside the simple yet powerful message. Saying that, even without the words the vibrant tri-coloured art and thick matte pages are enough to entice you into spending a while gazing and stroking your way through the book. Because of this fact, The Tiger Who Would Be King is good for any age, and if you feel like skipping a bit of gravity and dark depth* until they’re a little older then I’m sure Thurber will forgive you.
Or will he?…
* Actually, Thurber originally thought that it wouldn’t be published on the grounds of it being too ‘savage’ for children.
In fact, it would almost be impossible for a children’s book to have been in print continuously since 1943 and translated into over 250 languages — like The Little Prince has — without it being loved by both young and old for generations.
That’s a pretty easy point to agree on.
However, something a little harder to agree on is why both young and old love The Little Prince, as the reasons are seemingly very different.
As adults we’re of course drawn to the nostalgia of a children’s book. To us the world is mundane and predictable so we love the refreshing feeling of what it was like to see the world as a child, like the Little Prince does.
However, perhaps unlike the Little Prince himself and possibly unlike our younger counterparts too, we’re tempted to look a little deeper into it all. We like the story because, to us, it has meaning at every turn.
We enjoy the allegory and rich symbolism simmering constantly beneath the surface of everything and everyone our little hero encounters.
We read about the rose and see our own mother. We hear about the sheep without a muzzle and we see a metaphor for trouble and pain in our life. We meet the drunkard, the king, and the geographer and see clearly in their actions the charades of our world. We read about the fox and to us he quite literally is friendship and all that is meaningful in life.
But that is us reading the story. That is us reading it with years of experience and insight at our disposal. When we see the fox we see a clear metaphor for friendship, but surely to a child the fox is, well… just a fox.
And that’s completely true.
Children simply just won’t get the depths of The Little Prince. They won’t get that counting the stars is like counting money. They won’t get why a man would drink to forget his shame. They won’t get how baobabs on a tiny planet could be the same as evil in your heart.
The Little Prince is packed with all sorts of symbols and nuances that aren’t even always obvious to us adults (ok, well they weren’t obvious to me). Of course a child doesn’t understand it all! But does that even matter? I think you can probably guess the answer here…
Judging the value of a children’s story by the accessibility of its symbols is missing the point.
We are completely forgetting that the amusement behind The Little Prince is that the Little Prince himself doesn’t understand those around him. He doesn’t know what a king is or geographer or a conceited man or a lamplighter; he doesn’t understand why the narrator’s plane must be fixed or even why snakes are dangerous.
It is a story of a boy for whom everything is new and unknown. He doesn’t understand and he’s not worried that he doesn’t.
He asks a great deal of questions about these things, but ultimately he cares most about returning to his home planet, to his rose. It is this simple objective that is so important, and it is precisely the importance of this objective that the other characters in the story fail to grasp.
This is the heart of the book: while children may fail to understand many important things, their innocent nature means that the things they do love and understand are actually closer to the heart of what is truly meaningful in life than what adult’s value.
The other characters in the story value money and power, personal survival and the advancement of knowledge. The Little Prince values those close to him and his home.
Despite everything he doesn’t know, the Little Prince does know more than the other characters about what is most important.
Adults may love The Little Prince for its nuance and insight, but children probably love it for a much more simple reason: it’s a great story. Just because adults may grasp more of the meaning that doesn’t mean they enjoy it any more.
Enjoyment is not exclusive to those with the greatest understanding.
If a child hears the story and all that they understand is that it is about a boy from a tiny planet trying to find his way home — if they find it entertaining and enjoyable, then that alone proves the book’s worth.
Just like the other characters in the story who forget what is important in life, we have forgotten that the real purpose of a children’s story is simple enjoyment, not how profound it is.
That young and old for generations have loved The Little Prince for different reasons is of no consequence. The Little Prince is a brilliant story with equal value for young and old. The adults reading it could do as well to remember the simple pleasure of a good story as children could from trying to grasp the deeper meaning behind it.