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The stories that stuck

Words by Shaki Sutharsan

Visuals by Brithi Sehra

Some of my earliest and most precious memories are hidden between the pages of children’s stories I read as a kid. Curled up in my father’s lap, holding a pop-up book upside down and reading it aloud. Fighting with my little sister for who got to dial into the Toronto Public Library’s bedtime story hotline every night. Walking around the community library, hand-in-hand with my mother, my neck craned up at the towering shelves full of books waiting to be cracked open for the thousandth time.

Whether you’re eight, 22 or even 40 years old, the stories of our childhoods undoubtedly continue to impact us well into our adult lives. Here are some lessons that I’ve carried into adulthood from the following stories.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

This is a story with only two characters—a boy and a tree. In the beginning, the boy loved to climb up the tree’s trunk, eat its apples and sleep beneath its shade. But as time passes, and the boy gets older, his visits are few and far between—leaving the tree sad and alone. 

When he does come, the boy would rather make money to buy things or is too busy trying to build a family to climb the tree like he used to. The tree first offers him its apples to sell so he can make money, its branches for him to build a house and finally, its trunk for him to build a boat. In the end, only a stump is left. 

When the boy returns to the stump one last time, he is  now an old man and the tree tells him that it has nothing more left to offer him. But the boy says that he only needs a place to rest. So, the tree offers up the only thing it has left, its stump, for him to sit and rest against. 

Upon rereading it for the first time since I was a child, the story left me feeling heavy. But I realized why this story ultimately stuck with me for so long. It’s not the ambiguously sad ending or what the relationship between the boy and the tree could possibly allude to in the real world. Instead, it’s the fact that the tree gave everything it had until it had nothing left to give, just for a chance to spend some time with him. 

Though it’s left unsaid, I felt that the boy finally realized just how much the tree had meant to him when it was too late for him to do anything about it. He was so focused on the material aspects of his life that he lost sight of who was there for him as a constant and selfless presence throughout his life.

The Lesson: The full circle moment at the end reminded me to never take the kindness of others for granted. Material things will not last forever—they will break, they will grow out of fashion and you might even find yourself being unable to use them like you used to. But love, in any and all forms, will last you a lifetime. 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

With its cozy atmosphere and beloved characters that remain relatable over a century after its time, Little Women is a book that can be appreciated by readers of all ages. 

Largely based on the author’s own life with her sisters, the story follows Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy in their wild childhood together during the American Civil War. The novel depicts the great plays they put on at home together, the inevitable love-hate relationship that all sisters seem to share and how each of their personalities grow and flourish into adulthood.

Little Women made me reflect on the value of family—blood-related or otherwise—and how life’s battles are more easily fought with the support of loved ones surrounding you.  Sisters can often be both your fiercest enemies and also your greatest friends but always appreciate the time you spend living with them because those years won’t last forever. 

Underlined throughout the novel is the lesson that giving to people who are in need will always bring more joy than receiving gifts or wealth for yourself.

The Lesson: Appreciate your loved ones—especially your siblings! Whenever you can, help others in need—even the smallest acts of kindness can mean the world to someone else. There is nothing more rewarding than giving back to our communities.

Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt

This one never failed to give me a good cackle when I read it as a child, but now, it hits a little differently. The story follows a squirrel—Scaredy Squirrel—who spends his days holed up in his tree, eating the same nuts and looking out at the same view. He never dares to venture farther from his tree because of “the unknown” that lies beyond it. He’s terrified of many things that reside in “the unknown,” including but not limited to green martians, killer bees, germs and poison ivy. 

However, Scaredy Squirrel is prepared for any disaster, keeping close hold of an emergency kit containing items ranging from calamine lotion to a parachute. But one day, something unexpected happens, and he’s forced to brave “the unknown”…without the help of his emergency kit.

As someone who’s also struggled with various forms of anxiety for most of my life, Scaredy Squirrel feels like a kindred spirit. When I was younger, I preferred hiding away in my room where everything was familiar and safe to me rather than venturing out into the world and doing the things that scared me. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that there’s no real living in that. 

The Lesson: Life is made up of the moments when you decide to brave the unknowns of your world. Venturing past the limits of your comfort zone will allow you to experience the world around you to its fullest.

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

When I first read this story as a child, it resonated with me very deeply. The story follows a mouse named Chrysanthemum who loves her unique name…until she starts going to school. The other kids start teasing her for sharing a name with a flower. Chrysanthemum, who has always loved her special name, starts to wish she had a different one.

As someone who also has an uncommon name, it was hard for me to feel like I fit in with everyone else when I first started school. I was always proud of my name and I loved that it made me unique, but there were also days where I ducked my head in embarrassment when the substitute teacher pronounced my name wrong and I was too shy to correct them. I thought of what my life would’ve been like if I were named something else, like Anna or Rachel. 

But Chrysanthemum made me realize that my name is what makes me who I am. I’ve learned to embrace my differences rather than force myself to fit in with the status quo because my differences are what make me, me.

The Lesson: Always appreciate your individuality and never wish to change yourself to fit into what society deems to be “conventional.” Your differences are your greatest asset and your most valuable tools.

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