Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's BookEverything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book Edited by Anita Silvey, Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2009. 240 pages.

While we were told many years ago that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten (thank you, Robert Fulghum), the truth of the matter is that some of the best life lessons are learned from the pages of children’s books.

Anita Silvey has gathered together brief yet memorable essays from some of the most articulate people of the day. Most of the names are familiar – Leonard Marcus, Jay Leno, Stan Lee, Philip Pullman, just to name a few – but some are less celebrated. Who can argue with the inclusion of a cardiac surgeon’s reminiscences about the tin woodman’s quest for a heart? Or a teacher who found a parallel to The Secret Garden in her own childhood classroom?

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book is ideally organized both for casual dipping and serious reading. Each essay is accompanied by a page from the book remembered, often with original illustrations. A brief history of the book along with a cover runs as a sidebar to each essay, providing continuity from its creation to the adjacent memories.

While each essay has its own emotional truth, some do tend to haunt the reader, especially the reader who loves children’s books. Sherman Alexie’s essay on reading The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats reveals that it opened up the possibility that people might want to listen to him, too. Julia Alvarez writes how The Arabian Nights impacted her as a child living in a dictatorship, realizing in retrospect how she drew inspiration from a girl who used words to escape a cruel fate, one night at a time.

Two artists – Andrew Wyeth and Wendell Minor – share very different memories of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrated Treasure Island. While Minor seems to see Wyeth’s work as a map for illustrative storytelling, Wyeth’s son’s memories reveal a dramatic illustrator who used everything in him to create the rich paintings to accompany Stevenson’s classic tale.

It’s fascinating to note how the same story resonates with different readers. The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Little Engine that Could and various Beatrix Potter tales all have multiple entries that reveal how one story can plant seeds that yield wildly varied, yet always delicious, fruit.

But don’t expect only the familiar – Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book can also serve as a fascinating introduction to books undeservedly forgotten. Dave Eggers’ memories of The Book of the Dun Cow encapsulate the message found in many of the essays: “The book was such a small thing – a lightweight paperback book – but the power contained within was really startling to me.”

It should be noted that sales of this book will benefit the Children’s Book Council Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting Children’s Book Week activities and the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. And before we all apply for the job, Jon Scieszka is the current office holder. Just so you know.

– Reviewed by Ellen Myrick