20 April 2013

My Encounter with the Little Prince

Late one afternoon this past week, my daughters and I made a quick trip into town.  We were going to grab a bite for dinner and stop by our favorite shop, the Peregrine BookCompany.  I had been informed that the copies of the book I’ll be giving away for World Book Night 2013 were ready to be picked up.  Ever since the closing of most of our town’s independent bookstores in the post-Amazon market, and then the closing of a large chain bookstore, we’ve been longing for a decent bookstore.  Peregrine somehow fits the collective fantasy of an independent downtown bookstore for our town, and it’s a big deal for this town to agree on something, as we have seemingly divergent populations:  old ranchers and old hippies, teenagers and transplant retirees, horsemen and mountain bikers, free-thinking artists and conservative Christians, and more of course.  And yet somehow, we all seem to agree that Peregrine is a lovely space.

Every time I enter the bookstore, my heart races because I can scarcely believe it is true, that this beautiful bookstore is here, and that I can come anytime I want, to browse and purchase, to sniff the books.  If you have never suffered a bookstore drought in your life, you are extremely lucky.  You just can’t inhale the scent of book on Amazon.

Just moments after we entered the bookstore, Madeleine peeled away to find her favorite chair in the Young Adult section (“It’s so cushy!”).  Arden and I were looking at Rory’s Story Cubes when suddenly we were accosted by a little red-haired boy, maybe three years old, brandishing a book about monsters.

“I want to show you this,” he commanded, plopping on the floor right at our feet.  He acted as if he’d been waiting for us to arrive, or maybe even as if we’d walked in with him.

Two things went through my mind immediately:
1)  The way this boy talked to me, and the self-assuredness with which he behaved, reminded me of another little boy I loved - the Little Prince - who also made somewhat arrogant and self-centered demands of adults.
2)  One of my favorite lines from the Little Prince, “Quand le mystère est trop impressionnant, on n’ose pas désobéir.” (In the face of an over-powering mystery, you don’t dare disobey.)  What if this red-haired boy were my Little Prince, sent here to teach me life’s greatest lessons?  How could I not do as he asked?

And so, I found myself kneeling on the hard wood floor with Arden and this little boy, just yards away from the cash register counter, looking at the monster book.  He separated each page carefully with his tiny hands, flipping it to reveal another new monster on each page.  We laughed at the silly monsters and picked our favorite attributes.

“This one has funny hair.”

“I like his spots.”

“What a scary mouth and claws!”

At one point, though, my knees began to ache and I looked around in search of a parent of this child, but saw none.  I felt a bit perplexed.  This wasn’t why I was here.  I had things to do, places to go.  But this little boy was so insistent, so certain that I was supposed to be there on the floor, pouring over this ridiculous book with him, and I couldn’t break away.  An older woman walked by with a clerk and acknowledged us in such a way that I believed she must be his grandmother, but she said nothing.  Arden smiled at me and made herself more comfortable on the floor, and so we continued to look at the monster book with this red-haired little prince.  From time to time he told me (he didn’t ask) to read a word or two, or ordered me to help him count with him how many eyes certain monsters had.  The grandmotherly woman walked by again, observing us with practiced eyes.

By the time we reached the end, though, a realization hit me.  I was here to pick up my books for World Book Night, and the whole point of this philanthropic event is to share the love of reading person to person.  I'll be giving away Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist, a fable about following your dream.  In the book, a young shepherd leaves his home and all that he knows in order to pursue his unlikely and fanciful dream.  On his quest he encounters many people who teach him lessons.   I grasped that this little boy was doing exactly that with me.  I had just met a member of my tribe.  In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the title character learns from and teaches the other characters huge lessons about life and love and purpose.  I felt as if I’d been charmed as we stood up and I knew that I’d likely have few encounters like this in my lifetime, that this was somehow an allegory in my real life.  I dusted off my knees and looked at Arden, who was beaming.  She seemed to understand - of course she did - that we were in the presence of something rare. 
Our little prince swaggered toward the counter, monster book in hand, and in his self-assured way, announced, “I’m going to check this one out.  It’s really good.” 

I stifled a giggle, as that sounded just like something the Little Prince would say, but I said nothing, knowing that he would not listen to me.  We wandered around the store, re-grouped with Madeleine, asked for and received my box of books.  We didn’t see the boy or the older woman again, but I felt and shared his love of books with my whole being.  And so, with new inspiration and insight, I’ll be giving away The Alchemist on April 23, 2013, to twenty people in my community.  I’m hopeful that they’ll feel that same spark of joy in books that Arden and I shared with the little red-haired boy, and that they’ll find great meaning in the tale of an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest to follow his dream. 

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