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Children's Story that Encourages Independent Thinking

Q:  If you were to choose one children’s story that encourage independent thinking, what would it be?

A:  There are so many—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example, or Huck Finn— but it’s hard to beat the power and message of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.  It’s easy to lose sight of the unique power of a story as familiar as this one, so it’s worth retelling. 

An emperor, overly obsessed with clothes, hires a pair of tailors who promise to make him the finest clothes imaginable from a bolt of magic cloth.  The tailors—who are actually just a couple of swindlers—claim the cloth cannot be seen by anyone who is stupid or unworthy of his position.  In fact, there is no cloth at all.

The emperor sends his courtiers one by one to see the work in progress.  Each sees nothing on the loom but is too terrified to say so for fear of proving himself stupid or unworthy and so praises the beauty of it to the emperor.  At last the tailors bring the “finished” suit to the emperor, who (unable to admit to not seeing something his underlings have seen) immediately dons the clothes for a parade through town, during which the crowd pretends to marvel at the clothes.  Suddenly a young child, unhindered by the nonsense that ties the tongues of the adults, blurts out, “But he has nothing on at all!”  The crowd, validated in their own perceptions by the child’s honesty, laughs the naked emperor back to his palace.

In a few short pages, the story satirizes vanity, power, conformity, self-doubt, and human gullibility while praising evidence, courage, and honest dissent.  If you can find a tale that more neatly captures the values of thinking for one’s self, I’ll eat my hat.

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