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Literary People on Life, Love, and ‘The Little Prince’

As you may have heard, this month marks the 70th anniversary of the first publication of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic kids-book-for-adults (or adult-book-for-kids) The Little Prince. This book was wildly important to many of us, so we decided to ask some other bookish types about their own experiences with the story. As we reached out to a few friends in the literary world, we were surprised by how many of them hadn’t read it — after all, it’s one of the best-selling single-volume works of all time. But the devotees are out there. After the jump, a few recollections and musings on The Little Prince from authors and editors. Tell us your own Little Prince story in the comments.

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Emma Straub, author:

I went to the sort of summer camp that had gender-blind casting, and so when I was about nine years old, I played the Little Prince on stage. I was one of seven actors — I use the term loosely — to share the part. I think I had about two scenes, and the pilot I was playing opposite was much older than I was, and I had a huge crush on him. Needless to say, I forgot all my lines, and the next year, when the play was The Wizard of Oz, I was relegated to the part of an evil stepsister, a part that doesn’t actually exist.

Elianna Kan, Senior Editor, The American Reader:

Like a number of other famous children’s books, I grew up reading The Little Prince in Russian instead of English. It was one of many tattered Soviet-era books my parents brought with them when they emigrated from the USSR and insisted I read these editions, instead of the smoother, glossier American versions. They tell me that The Little Prince, like so many other Western texts that slowly made their way into Russia after Stalin’s death in the ’50s, was overwhelmingly refreshing with its emphasis on the individual quest and nonconformity. It represented total escapism.

It’s a book that’s stayed with me more strongly in my visual rather than narrative memory, so I recently decided to reread it (you can imagine the sympathetic looks I got on the subway). More than anything, what stunned me now was the book’s dedication — “All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it). So I correct my dedication: To Leon Werth — When he was a little boy.”

Kelsey Smith, Assistant Editor, Scribner:

I can’t remember the very first time I laid eyes on Le Petit Prince. Growing up in Paris, I’m sure it was around me in many forms from the time I moved there at the age of four. I do remember, however, really reading it for the first time, and how it made me feel. I was in the fifth grade, still in Paris, and I remember feeling so utterly understood by this character, feeling so very connected to him. Childhood can be such a lonely time, and le Petit Prince captures it so beautifully. For many I believe it is the first experience with nostalgia and melancholy, a gateway to these feelings you continue to experience as an adolescent and as an adult.

Matt Bell, author

I’ve never actually read The Little Prince, and I’ve only heard it read from once, in the summer of 2011, when an excerpt from it served as the reading at a wedding I officiated between two writer friends of mine, on the gorgeous and steep lawn of a certain bourbon distillery in Kentucky. The reading they chose from The Little Prince included these lovely lines of dialogue, the fox speaking to the prince:

And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder?
These wheat fields have nothing to say to me.
And that is sad.
But you have hair that is the color of gold.
Think how wonderful that will be, when you have tamed me!
The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you.

The Little Prince doesn’t mean anything to me on its own — I don’t even know its basic plot — but whenever I hear its name mentioned, that name acts on me as the grain acts on the fox: I immediately think of that tall lawn, and that distillery, and the state of Kentucky — and also the wonderful marriage of my two great friends, who so kindly invited me to be part of their wedding day.

Julie Sarkissian

It’s my dirty little literary secret. I’ve never read The Little Prince.

I first knew something was wrong with me when I arrived for my freshman year at Princeton. As I made me new friends, I shared with them my aspirations to be writer, my bookish, Californian family, and my television-less, hippie childhood. To which a shocking number of people replied that even though they themselves were toilet trained with indoor plumbing (not an outhouse like me,) they bought vegetables from supermarkets (didn’t grow them in the backyard like my family,) and they took family vacations to hotels and family estates (not in tents,) we must certainly have a favorite book in common: The Little Prince.

But not only was The Little Prince not one of my favorite books, I’d never read it. I wasn’t even positive I had heard of it before. It seemed to be some sophisticated, East Coast rite of reading passage I had totally missed. But I desperately wanted to connect with my peers over books. Books were what I had going for me. I didn’t know what Deerfield or field hockey or Nantucket Reds were, but I knew books. Or at least, my peers thought I did. I used to think I did. And I wanted to keep it that way. So I did the obvious thing. I lied. Time and time again I mumbled how much I loved The Little Prince and tried to change the subject, bringing back humiliating childhood memories of posturing that I was an avid 90201 fan by repeating the two stories of Kelly and Dylan’s breakup that I had heard another kid tell and had committed to memory.

Of course there were many opportunities to make up for lost time and read The Little Prince. So many people had the book on their shelves for sentimental/inspirational purposes, along side Oh, The Places You’ll Go and The Alchemist. I could have absconded to the bathroom with it and returned with The Little Prince memorized, ready to stay up late into the night with my new friends, bonding over how the book had touched our childhoods. But I didn’t. I felt a strange loyalty to my parents, whom I had believed to have read me and my brother every single good book for kids ever written in the history of time. Obviously that wasn’t true. But I didn’t want to face it. I didn’t want to read a child’s book without them. It reminded me too much that the weekend mornings with my and my brother in my parent’s bed with a stack of books were long, long gone. That childhood was over.

But as the 70th anniversary of The Little Prince approaches, I’m no longer going to let misguided loyalty and over grown separation anxiety keep me from a book that has enchanted and delighted generations. I’m gonna buy an anniversary copy, and make sure to read it to my children. At least before they go off to college.

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