Children are fascinated with smallness, says Jerry Griswold in his book, Feeling Like A Kid. So it’s no surprise that littleness is a frequent topic in children’s literature: Alice shrinking, Dorothy among the Munchkins, Stuart Little in his little car, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Prince, The Little Engine That Could, and on and on.
“Of course, the fascination of the young with smallness may be explained in terms of their size,” says Griswold, “but it is also a reflection of their diminished power. As for dwarves and midgets (with whom children are often compared), littleness is a handicap in a larger-scaled world.”
To be a kid is literally to be “overlooked,” to be not quite seen, to be often not taken seriously, to not quite fit in the grownup world—to not be able to see over the counter in a restaurant, to need a high chair or booster seat.
Thus, kids love stories where the hero turns smallness to an advantage to overcome a larger person. Gretel protests that she is too small to know how to put the wood in the oven, tricking the witch into helping her, then pushing the witch in and shutting the door. Peter Rabbit escapes Mr. McGregor by slipping through a small window. Little Jack outwits the huge giant.
After reading the Jack and the Beanstalk story to her five year old, one Mother reported that he asked, “There aren’t really giants are there?” Before she could answer, the boy answered his own question: “But there are grownups!”—thus giving us an interesting peek into what it feels like to be a kid.
Griswold points out that the young and the old have very different notions of what is important. For adults watching the evening news, for example, events in the Larger World are important. But “In the smaller world of the child…the blooming of the tomato plant outside the window may be more significant than any election, but it never gets reported by television broadcasters.”
We see this different notion of importance in E. B. White’s mouse-like character, Stuart Little. One day Stuart serves as a substitute teacher, and he and the children in the class come to an agreement about what’s really important in life: “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note of music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.”
The more we think about a child’s perspective, the more we may be inclined to agree with Jan Morris’s admiring comment about the smallness of the country of Wales: “It’s smallness is not petty; on the contrary, it is profound.” To quote Griswold again: “There is an observable difference in the way the young and the old see life.” I think great stories help us enter into kids’ way of seeing.