Illustration by Cariné Müller

Essay

Doorways to Our Childhood Selves

You may know this story.

It begins with a pilot who crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert. Stranded for eight days, the pilot meets a little boy, a prince, who asks him to draw a sheep. The boy has come from another planet, a small distant asteroid called B-612, no bigger than a house. He is the sole inhabitant, a dedicated steward of three volcanoes, some valleys, and a rose that he longs to protect. Conflicted over the rose’s vanity and contradictory nature, the boy embarks on a journey with the help of migratory birds. He departs his asteroid and visits six nearby planets to learn about life in the universe. 

The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and published in 1943, is more than a philosophical tale. It is a timeless story about a grown-up who encounters his inner child. In a quest for a meaningful life, he encounters this child in the form of a prince who wishes to be of service to something bigger than himself. This mystical journey reveals the essence of what it means to live, including its secrets and wisdom—if we know how to listen. “The eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.”[1]   

If you haven’t read the story, it just might stir something within you. The Little Prince offers a world beyond ourselves. Saint-Exupéry beautifully illustrates the longing we have within ourselves to explore unknown territories and to trust our instinctual nature. Our moral selves are summoned to the page. Like many stories we read during our young lives, this story offers a unique opening into life. Full of possibility, sorrow, and lessons to be learned, a story can captivate both our present selves and the selves we would like to become.

In fourth grade, I discovered Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. “This story made me cry,” my school librarian Ms. Kalini said to me, putting her hand on her heart. Her palpable emotion awakened my curiosity, a powerful feeling. I soon discovered that the story unfolded tragically. The two main characters were my age. Their friendship develops, and they each begin to blossom, becoming more open and courageous. While exploring the woods near their home, they discover a rope swing by a creek. They declared that this was their kingdom. They would name it Terabithia. Like Ms. Kalini, when I read that one of these characters dies while trying to cross the river, I felt a deep sadness. Reading these pages had opened a new doorway from my imagination to my heart. 

Saint-Exupéry, too, evokes the kingdom of imagination. He leads us to a place without boundaries. In 1926, he enrolled as a student aviator to work airmail routes. His first route covered the rugged terrain from the southwestern part of France in Toulouse to South Africa.[2] Saint-Exupéry’s aviator perspectives and his adventurous spirit become interwoven themes in The Little Prince. He describes a harrowing navigation over a sea of clouds in his memoir. “This viscous whiteness became in my mind the frontier between the real and the unreal, between the known and the unknowable.”[3] His voice is reminiscent of the little prince, who also speaks in a philosophical, poetic tone, full of curiosity, and with an open heart.

While contemplating the transformative nature of the desert, Saint-Exupéry recalls the games of his childhood. He writes of “… the dark and golden park we peopled with gods; the limitless kingdom we made of this square mile never thoroughly explored, never thoroughly charted. We created a secret civilization where footfalls had a meaning and things a savor known in no other world.”[4]  

As I searched for more stories like The Bridge of Terabithia—ones that could turn my heart—I also began to search for places where my imagination could create stories of its own. I, too, came to have a “kingdom” in the woods near my childhood home in Virginia. A fallen tree served as our playground. My neighborhood friends and I took turns being directors on a fully populated, imaginary bus. While walking down the raised timber, we would speak directives into the branches, creating a world in the silence of the forest. Perhaps Ms. Kalini had inadvertently given me permission to feel. It was as if she had given me a gift from her heart to mine and, in doing so, had opened up a way into something both unbounded and universal. 

Author Madeleine L’Engle speaks of the child’s ability to transcend barriers in her 1963 Newbery Medal acceptance speech, “The Expanding Universe,” for her book A Wrinkle in Time. She states, “A writer of fantasy, fairy tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider….What a child doesn’t realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” These books she said, “lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the language of all [humankind].”[5]

Born in 1900, Saint-Exúpery created a makeshift flying machine when he was twelve years old. The Wright Brothers at this time were testing their glider in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. “One of the miracles of the airplane is that it plunges a man directly into the heart of mystery,” he would later write.[6] He compares an aviator to a “biologist studying, through [their] porthole, the human ant-hill” where a “green clump below you becomes a universe.”[7] At eight years old, I visited Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes. A combination of sand and wind whipped my lower body with force, and I imagined the Wright Brothers lifting off towards the horizon on the edge of the Atlantic. Standing in this place, I was captivated and mystified by this invention.

This “porthole”—the ability to absorb oneself into the small details of the world— is a foundational aspect of childhood exploration and learning. Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori describes that this fascination often begins in the second year of life. In this “sensitive period,” young children are drawn to tiny objects in their environment. I love the following passage describing Montessori witnessing this sensitivity with a fifteen-month-old girl for the first time.

"I heard her laugh out loud in the garden in a way unusual in such small children. She had gone out there alone and was sitting on the paving stones of the terrace. Near her was a bed of magnificent geraniums, flowering under an almost tropical sun. But the child was not looking at them; her eyes were fixed on the ground, where there was nothing to be seen. 

Here then was another of the enigmas of infancy. I crept up and looked where she was looking, but saw nothing. It was she who explained to me, in words that were hardly words, ‘There is something tiny moving down there.’ With this guidance, I was able to see a tiny, almost invisible insect, the colour of the stone, moving very quickly. What had struck the child was that such a tiny creature could exist, and could move, could run."[9]

“When we gain access to this “porthole,” we connect to the intricacies and web of life. Montessori’s astute observations of children guided her to form her philosophy and pedagogy. Children at a young age, she describes, are drawn to “the invisible; or that which lies at the very edge of consciousness.”[10]  

While young children inhabit a keen sense of awareness with the seen and unseen qualities of the world, most adults forget about the petit; they no longer can see in the same way. One of the fundamental differences between adults and children is that “the child is in a continual state of growth and metamorphosis.”[11] The minds of adults, however, become full of projections. They have preconceived notions of what they experience. The simplicity of being in the moment and seeing with new eyes diminishes. We separate ourselves from the mysteries of life. 

When the little prince decides to leave his asteroid, he faces a series of encounters with “grown-ups” on different planets. The boy’s vivid imagination is in a state of “metamorphosis”  while the concrete constructs of their minds limit the adults. “Grown-ups are certainly very, very strange,” is a recurring line throughout the story.[12] Each conversation between the prince and an adult provides insights into the reflection of his youthful spirit and the formation of his moral character. Upon meeting a drunkard, the boy asks, “Why do you drink?” “To forget,” the man replies. He meets a geographer too important to leave his study. The man has never seen nor explored his planet. He meets a serious businessman, the owner of five-hundred million stars.[13]  

In the original French version of the story— Le Petit Prince— the word “grown-ups” is replaced by the phrase “Big People.” This phrase subtly infers that a person who is “big” does not necessarily mean that they have “grown-up.” Goliath, writes Malcolm Gladwell, couldn’t see because he was a giant.[14] His size inhibited him from seeing clearly. Goliath—like the Big People— are limited by their vantage points, whether it be size, knowledge, or ego. 

“Only the children know what they are looking for,” repeats Saint-Exupéry.[15] This theme is explored in many children’s books such as in the well-known tale The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss (1945) about a young boy who plants a carrot seed. He knows that the carrot seed will sprout in time. Yet, his parents—the big people—are skeptical. It’s as much a story about a child trusting his/her inner knowing and the mysteries of the living world as it is about perseverance and patience.

Illustration by Cariné Müller

Before they can talk, writes Montessori, children are philosophers.[16] “The young explorer,” she writes, “is never idle, because he is looking in the world to find himself—reflected in a mirror with a thousand facets. That is why everything attracts him. Whilst he is examining the objects in the world around him, he is—as it were—stealing from them their qualities—their shapes, surfaces, textures, their colors, weight, sizes, uses, composition, and so forth. These he mysteriously builds into himself (like a spiritual caddis worm) and then constructs his mental being.”[17]

When my son was three years old, we held hands while walking across a busy street on a windy day. He tugged at my hand to get my attention, looking back at something on the ground. He was pointing to a magazine, its pages flipping in the wind. With pure delight, he said, “Look mom! The wind is reading!” I loved how he saw the wind as a being, active and alive.

“Children are intense and intuitive mappers, using story, touch, and paper to plot their places,” writes Robert Macfarlane in his book Landmarks, an exploration of the power of language.[18] Inspectors and cartographers, children are witnesses and discoverers. In a child’s daily experience, time and place are fluid and alive. Place is somewhere children “are always in, never on.”[19]

In her short documentary Into the Middle of Nowhere, filmmaker Anna Ewert captures this essence of place, creativity, and wonder with preschool children. The film follows three- and four-year-olds exploring their boundaries through play and imagination at an outdoor nature school in Fife, Scotland. One child sits at the base of a tree’s hollow where he describes that he’s “driving the animal boat,” giving the animals “prowling around lessons.”[20] A small group of children build a makeshift airplane out of fallen timber and branches with no adults in sight. One boy declares himself the pilot. He situates himself inside the aircraft, raises his hands to rest on an imaginary steering wheel, and makes the sound of a revving engine. The children on board shared their real and imagined destinations: Ben 10 World, Fire Land, Batman World, Flyer World, and Smoke Bloke Land. When one young girl, the final passenger aboard the airplane, was asked where she wanted to go, she said with a smile, “Into the middle of nowhere.”[21]

The best children’s literature, states Macfarlane, understands this order, or orientation, of place. Stories, therefore, contain “thresholds,” “place-warps,” and “access points that lead to experience and danger, in defiance of standard geometries, and often beyond the guardianship of adults.”[22] A threshold, by definition, is both literal and symbolic. Its literal definition is “a piece of wood, stone, or other material forming the bottom of a doorway,”[23] while its figurative meaning is “the starting point or early part of an undertaking, experience; the onset or outset of something.”[24]

Classic tales like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy all include a hero or heroine presented with a challenging obstacle where time and space is reimagined. A character’s inward understanding often leads to an outward undertaking. In many stories that reflect the hero’s journey, such as Harry Potter or The Neverending Story, characters are faced with a symbolic doorway. They are forced to make a decision. There is a readiness to begin a quest and the potential of crossing a threshold into a new beginning.  

Irish poet and Hegelian philosopher John O’Donohue explored the meaning and message of thresholds in his work. He wrote, “A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.”[25]

The little prince experiences all of these emotions. He enters a place, leaving the familiar behind, entering the unknown. O’Donohue describes that this place is where there is a potential for an individual to enter into a “worthy fullness.”[26] What begins to take shape is a greater understanding of oneself and how to be in relation to the world.

Illustration by Cariné Müller

Like these characters in literature, children inhabit and discover these “access points” at a young age. In Landmarks, Macfarlane documents the work of Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI), an organization that works with people of all ages to develop their curiosity and imagination. In one project, CCI collaborated with three primary schools. They observed 105 children aged 9 to 11, as they explored the world of mycorrhizal fungi, known as the “wood wide web.”[27] This project was inspired by a collaboration between Lilah Fowler, a public artist, and Jen McGaley, a plant scientist from the University of Cambridge. Children were invited to observe “blue stained images of plant root samples” that the group had gathered. These indigo plant samples, magnified, resemble tiny (visible and invisible) worlds unto themselves. The following were some of the children’s responses: “I can see … an eye, a fossil, a tiny diver; They look like … blood vessels squashed together, an infection, the sea, a scaly dragon, a cave man drawing, my jammed ink pen; is it like sourdough?”[28]

Macfarlane describes that phrases such as these are classified as a language called Childish. Full of metaphors, the language of Childish contains a spirit, a creative force that beholds a timeless world, full of possibilities. In many of the projects at CCI, children use drawing as a form of storytelling. After returning from a visit to the forest, children illustrate their imaginative findings. Many of the drawings from the children include doorways and pathways to other places, documented in trees and in other locations. The doors are always open.

In a graduate poetry class with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Hass in the 1990s, he told a small group of us that The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard was one of the most influential books in his life. Bachelard, a philosopher and phenomenologist, explores the significance of the physical spaces in the home and how they inhabit our imagination. From the cellar to the attic and in drawers, chests, and corners, each place has a deep significance and meaning. About doors he writes, “How concrete everything becomes in the world of the spirit when an object, a mere door, can give images of hesitation, temptation, desire, security, welcome and respect. If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.”[29]  

Each doorway differentiates itself from another: from the weight, the location, the color, and how it opens and closes. In one home I inhabited, all of the doors were made of glass; the bedroom door of my childhood would never close. From the hobbit hole in Tolkien’s Shire—perfectly round and green with a shiny brass knob in the center— to the large oak doors in the Entrance Hall to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, some of the best doorways in literature are classic symbols, passageways from one world to another. Under the earth and ivy, Mary in Burnett’s The Secret Garden discovers the door that leads to the secret garden. There is something mysterious about a door; it is an invitation. French poet Pierre Albert Birot illustrates this potential, a summons in waiting. 

At the door of the house who will come knocking? 
An open door, we enter
A closed door, a den
The world pulse beats beyond my door.
[30]

It is not surprising that The Little Prince is being used as a tool for learning in educational settings around the world. From a curriculum for conflict-affected youth in northern Iraq to K-12 classrooms exploring identity, friendship, and love, The Little Prince provides entry points to teach and learn about communicating different points of view.   

All good stories require something from us. The little prince pulls at our hearts with his humility, with his longing, and with his love for his home. As we root for the little prince, we also root for a part of our childhood self, including our imagination and our curiosity, to come back into being. One of the main messages of Saint-Exupéry’s story is that we must look beneath the surface to find the truth. As the fox in the story states, “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.” This is humanity’s unspoken moral rule. Yet, it is disappearing. 

With increased restrictions on classroom teaching, discussing the truth, such as the real history and causes of slavery and colonialism, has become more challenging. What is at stake in our world today is that we are too often no longer guided by our hearts and the values of our common humanity. In a time of great division, when our education systems are fractured, when standardized testing and teaching scripts have become normalized, the embrace of universal values is critical if we want our children to become more open and compassionate. Children inherently embody these qualities. It’s the big people and society that close their imaginative doors. “Why,” writes Pierre Lassus in Discovering the Hidden Wisdom of The Little Prince, “isn’t the ability to see a child as a master of wisdom … universally shared?"[31]  

The etymology of the word education in Latin ēdūcere, (the verb educe/educate) means that a person’s intrinsic, or essential, qualities “are being ‘drawn out’.”[32] Perhaps children love open doors because they are ready to be invited into the world, into learning, and into themselves. Children can show us the places we can no longer feel or see. They give voice to a universal language expressed through their imagination, one we once knew. If we stand at the edge of a door and listen, who will come knocking? Who will answer?

1. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000). [^]

2. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Sand, Wind and Stars (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1967). [^]

3. Ibid., 4. [^]

4. Ibid. [^]

5. Madeleine L’Engle, “Newbery Award Acceptance Speech: The Expanding Universe.” PDF file. 1963. [^]

6. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Sand, Wind, and Stars, 74-75. [^]

7. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Sand, Wind, and Stars, 75. [^]

8. E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (New York: Penguin Group, 1984, p. 128). [^]

9. Ibid., 128 -129. [^]

10. Ibid., 128 -129. [^]

11. Ibid., 106. [^]

12. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince[^]

13. Ibid. [^]

14. Malcom Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013). [^]

15. Ibid. [^]

16. E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (New York: Penguin Group, 1984, p. 102). [^]

17. Ibid., 104. [^]

18. Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (New York: Penguin Books, 2016, p. 326). [^]

19. Ibid., 315. [^]

20. Anna Ewert, director. Into The Middle of Nowhere. 2010; Blasted Heath Production. 15 min. [^]

21. Ibid. [^]

22. Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, p. 316.  [^]

23. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "threshold, n.," accessed March 21, 2022. [^]

24. Ibid. [^]

25. John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (New York: Convergent Press, 2008, p. 47-48). [^]

26. John O’Donohue, “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.” Interview by Krista Tippet for OnBeing (February, 28, 2008). [^]

27. Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination[^]

28. Ibid. [^]

29. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, p. 224). [^]

30. Ibid., p. 3. [^]

31. Pierre Lassus, Discovering the Hidden Wisdom of The Little Prince (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014, p. 24). [^]

32. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "education, n.," accessed March 21, 2022. [^]

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