Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince/ Micul Print
Published 1998 by Penguin Books (First published 1943 by Reynal & Hitchcock), 82 p
Children easily find interests in whimsical pictures, texts that dare to awake their imagination or stories about bravery and kindness. I have no hesitation when saying that a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, the image of a little prince or a friendly fox that needs connection will delight the little readers.
But The Little Prince is so much more than a story about a young man. First published in 1943 in New York, during Saint-Exupéry’s wartime exile, the story would become in time the best book of the 20th century in France and one of the best-selling books ever. It was translated in more than 250 languages and dialects and it is now considered a classic.
After a plane crush, the narrator, a pilot, is stranded in a desert and comes in contact with a little creature that resembles a young prince. The latter used to live alone on a small, distant asteroid, taking care of his three volcanoes, pulling out the baobab trees that would overrun his planet if left unattended and watching his beautiful rose that had mysteriously grown there. The prince felt brokenhearted when he realized the rose was taking advantage of his love so he decided to leave the asteroid and explore the world. As soon as he met the pilot, the prince asked him to draw a sheep that could eat the weeds on his planet.
The prince tells the pilot he had already visited six asteroids and each of them was inhabited by single persons reduced to one function – a king that had no subjects, a conceited, lonely man that wanted to be admired, a drinker that drank to forget he was a drinker, a businessman that owned stars but was too busy to see their beauty, a lamplighter that wasted himself following some absurd orders and turning off and lighting up a lamp every minute and finally, a geographer who wrote voluminous books but had never seen the world.
Then he landed on Earth. First the prince thought the planet was not inhabited but then he met a snake and then a flower that he asked about the people:
You see, they have no roots, which makes life very difficult for them.
The prince felt lonely and small on Earth. When he spoke it was only the echo that answered.
What a peculiar planet! he thought to himself. It is all dried up, full of sharp points, and very salty. And the people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them. On my planet I had a flower: she was always the first to speak.
Then a fox appeared and asked the prince to tame her; to tame is to create ties, the fox said. She also explained that you can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Realizing that he was responsible for his rose, in the eighth day in the desert, the prince allowed a snake to bite him, emotionally said good bye to the narrator and vanished.
And no grown-up will ever understand the significance of this!
I think that what turned this philosophical story into a classic are the multiple reading levels. I have already mentioned my arguments for reading The Little Prince to children so I will next try to convince you that this is a book also appealing to adults.
I have read the book so many times that I forgot the number; in Romanian and in English as well. And I found it charming and innocent every time. But it took me many years to see how deep the narrator’s sadness and loneliness was. This book is a story of human nature in times of war and solitude. Saint- Exupéry correlates childhood and maturity, exploring the innocence of the first and the strangeness of the second. When in war he longed for peacefulness and the love of his rose (his wife).
Grown-ups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about the important things. They never say: What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies? Instead they demand: How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn? Only then do they feel they know him.
Growing up seems a dehumanizing experience, a process of becoming shallow and superficial; and its climax is the war. Away from home, in an empty desert, Saint- Exupéry recalls the purity and essence of human relationships.
Complement The Little Prince with Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a great combination between a graphic novel and a movie, inspired by A Trip to the Moon, one of the first science fiction movies.