Learning from children’s books


This past week, in my second class that required me to awkwardly introduce myself, my professor asked us students to share where we hoped we would be in 10 years. Although not an uncommon question, I was taken aback by my instinctual response: I hope to be writing children’s books.

My affinity for childish things — Poptropica, finger-painting and too-sweet beverages — is just about the only constant in my life. However, as the world has the (decently justified) tendency to shame the inability to grow up, I’ve gradually become accustomed to hiding this partiality to what is childlike versus what is “mature.” In other words, I try most of the time to act like I have some handle on the whole adulting thing.

Still, my mind cannot completely ignore the uncanny likeness of children’s book themes to those of these four university years — finding the true you, exploring creativity and kindness and navigating a really, really, really big world. Thus, I’ve decided to provide a list of my favorite children’s books that I believe every college student — honestly, every person — should read.

“The Rainbow Fish” by Marcus Pfister

This book popped back into my conscious memory on an AP Biology trip to the Florida Keys my junior year, as I saw what I claimed was a Rainbow Fish (or at least a cousin — we didn’t focus on zoology so much as molecular biology). The essential plot line follows that a fish with special sparkly scales does not want to share any of his scales with even the smallest fish. However, with the help of an octopus, he discovers that it actually makes him happier to give to his friends than to hoard his scales and remain significantly more beautiful than the other fish. Although there are plenty of controversial interpretations, I see it as a story about the danger of vanity and the deep contentment that stems from selfless generosity.

“The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt

I read this book for the first time this summer while nannying twin kindergarteners. The story is a compilation of letters from the perspective of crayons owned by a child named Duncan, replete with complaints about the ways in which he uses them. The twins’ favorite was the poor peach crayon, whom Duncan had reduced to nudity with the purpose of coloring people’s skin more easily. I’ve never seen kids laugh harder and for such extended periods of time in my entire life. Aside from the comedic value, though, this story is an incredible testament to the ever-expanding margins of creativity, sprinkled with arguments against conformity, obligation and subservience at the expense of identity. Also, SPOILER ALERT, in the end Duncan gets an A+ for creativity by coloring with all the “wrong” colors — a black rainbow, a pink dinosaur and a green ocean are a few of the stars of the show. COME ON. INCREDIBLE.

“Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” by Carol McCloud

One of my mother’s favorites to read me, this book is more vocal about its symbolism, but that renders it no less powerful. The basic premise is that every member of the society walks the world with an invisible bucket in hand — not a bucket that can hold sand or rocks but rather a bucket that holds all the good thoughts, the happiness you have. We are responsible for making sure we fill others’ buckets but also that we retain a decently filled bucket ourselves, meaning we must be poured back into to give fully. Bucket dipping is also described as what happens when citizens steal the happiness out of others’ buckets; essentially, unkindness has a ripple effect of subtracting from people’s capacity to further happiness. This is a story about maintaining a balance between helping others and helping yourself, of the power of shared joy and of inflicted pain.

“Yoko” by Rosemary Wells

Before I could truly understand the weight of this book, I appreciated it for its beautiful illustration and its characters who fit my age and life stage. Even now, as I navigate a definitively different age and life stage, the lessons stand. The story goes that a kitten has gone to school with a lunch packed by her mother, full of sushi and red bean ice cream, and is humiliated when the other children comment on its smell and how different it is from their “normal” food. In response, Yoko’s teacher tries to step in and plans an international food day, where each child can bring cuisine from their homes. The other kids are still disgusted by Yoko’s dragon rolls, and only one student tries them — Timothy. However, this is enough for Yoko to feel better: just one person respecting what she has brought to the table. Although I’d hope for everyone to have more than one fan of their heritage, this book is stunning in both its appearance and its content. It reminds us that we haven’t been alone in our struggles to respect our roots, and that eventually someone will understand.

“Lily the Unicorn” by Dallas Clayton

In this extraordinarily illustrated book, which is equally favored by my four-year-old cousin and myself, Lily the unicorn makes a new friend, Roger the penguin. Roger does not like new adventures and is scared of a whole lot of things, especially failing. He doesn’t want to do any of the fun things Lily suggests they do together because he is too afraid he won’t be good at them. However, Lily encourages him that failing is okay, even good, and Roger decides to pursue Lily’s friendship and all the fun things he feared at the onset. In case it isn’t obvious, I see this as keenly relevant to the college experience — leaning into fear, jumping into friendships with people you may not know or have a lot in common with and most importantly, accepting failure as an integral part of growth.


Contact Malia Mendez at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

While you're here...

We're a student-run organization committed to providing hands-on experience in journalism, digital media and business for the next generation of reporters. Your support makes a difference in helping give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to develop important professional skills and conduct meaningful reporting. All contributions are tax-deductible.


Get Our EmailsGet Our Emails

Malia Mendez ’22 is the Screen desk editor for the Arts & Life section of The Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.