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An analysis of What Would You Wish For: David Sable's new children's book is deeper than it appears

March 5, 2020

David Sable, former CEO of Young & Rubicam and current special advisor to WPP wrote a children’s book, available NOW on Amazon here. The book is beautifully illustrated by award winning artist Emma Yarlett.

David Sable has also been a close mentor of mine, lending a listening ear and invaluable insight to me and my team.

According to the American Library Association, no fewer than 21,878 children’s books were published in 2009 alone. The sheer volume of new and old children’s books on the market is enormous.

With hundreds of thousands of children’s books having been published over the past decade, what separates the children’s books that touch us so deeply and leave such a universal impression that they become part of our identity, our childhood and even our experience as parents?

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, because for me, Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was one of those books.

Sable’s What Would You Wish For is certain to become one of those books that will distinguish itself as a deeply resonant and poignant work of literature and art that will live on; in the hearts of children and in the hidden chambers of parents’ souls throughout the world.

Like Where The Wild Things Are, Sable’s book is deceptively insightful. What Would You Wish For can be easily grasped and understood consciously and overtly at the level of its written text, complemented by Emma Yarlett's artwork that is uniquely human and emotive.

But beneath its surface, in its subtext, lies more intricate messages, ones which transcend the boundaries of the genre’s intended demographic. 

The books underlying themes can be grasped whether the reader is a child and not necessarily consciously aware of the deeper message or the reader is a more sophisticated adult thinker and is able to parse out the text from its subtext. Truth is resonant, and it touches us whether we want it to or not; whether we're consciously aware of it or not.

Sable’s clever prose sets the reader as the protagonist; as the story’s hero. 

The protagonist is faced with a difficult existential question (perhaps THE ultimate existential question): “If you had some wishes that were just for you, what would you wish for? What would you do … if all your wishes could really come true?”

The protagonist (reader) is brought through a series of increasingly complex and rich wishes he or she may want granted. At first, the protagonist wants things (a ship, a bike, a car), then the reader dreams of attaining his or her fantasies (fame, fortune, personal chef). Each fantasy and desire is drawn beautifully, with characters that reflect emotions that are both complex and relatable. 

Eventually, Sable suggests to the reader that a more worthy dream would be one that perpetuated peace and harmony among people, friends, and ultimately the world at large.

The story seems simplistic, but beneath its surface, communicated through precise and exact language and artwork (the artwork itself tells a big part of the story) lies a number of powerful ideas.

At the start of the story, Sable asks, “If you had some wishes that were just for you, what would you wish for? What would you do …”

“What would you do …” 

Superfluous writing for the sake of a rhyme?

Surely not.

What significance does this idea of “what would you do” play? What does it add?

Moreover, a wish implies that things will be done for me, not that I’ll have to do anything myself.

This is an important idea and a key concept of the underlying story.

When I was fourteen or so, I had the opportunity to meet a great Rabbi. As I shook his hand, I asked him for a blessing. 

The Rabbi motioned for me to bend down so he could whisper in my ear. 

Eager to be given a blessing, I bent down and waited for the Rabbi to bless me and promise my wishes would come true.

“You should work extremely hard in life,” the Rabbi whispered in my ear.

I was disheartened for a while. What a botched opportunity! I wanted a blessing; not another person to tell me I should work hard in life. 

A few years later I understood how profoundly meaningful the Rabbi’s message was. 

The message the Rabbi gave me is the same message Sable is communicating to children all over the world: The fulfillment of a worthwhile wish, a wish that elevates the wisher and all those around him, can only come about through one’s own commitment, action and effort.

On a deeper level, Sable is asking: “If you had a wish, would you wish, or would you do?” 

The Rabbi intuited that I was looking for a gift, a wish, a present. The Rabbi told me that I ought to reframe how I think about blessings, wishes and the like. If I want to receive all that I hoped to be blessed with, I should start thinking about what I can do to manifest the changes in life I hoped for.

What would you wish for … what would you do?

The first scene of Sable’s book, the one in which the fundamental question is posed, we see three children, each in their own home, each alone.

It is nighttime.

These specific thematic choices made by the author and illustrator here reflect the inner loneliness children (and adults) so often feel and can readily relate to.

I’m in advertising, and as such, I’m in the businesses of trying to figure out how to sell more things to people. I can tell you that people tend to buy more things, to want more things, the more alone and detached from meaningful relationships they are. This has been uncovered and proven through market research, but I also know this to be true from reflecting honestly (and depressingly) on my own buying patterns. 

Children are no different. In fact, children are more keenly aware of their feelings of loneliness and isolation, having fewer external distractions than adults do at their disposal.  

In fact, the proverbial “wishing upon a star” is a lonely act, immured in pop culture as a child standing alone and gazing up at the infinitely vast night sky.

To wish upon a star, to wish for anything, is to wish for companionship, for love and for a purpose.

In this sense, Sable takes on the erroneous notion of success and esteem permeating our society. Today, children grow up in a cultural context defined by a materialistic barometer for one’s success, worth and esteem.

A life marked solely by such a pursuit can only serve to drive an individual further into isolation, further into despair. 

Meaning and true satisfaction, Sable artfully communicates to his readers, cannot be manifest from a life defined by the materialistic pursuits of the individual with the sole aim being to further his or her individual situation. 

Loneliness becomes more severe as we try to achieve the things we think will make us feel less alone.

At first, the children protagonists in Sable’s book wish for physical things. This is normal and natural; there’s nothing overtly harmful about it. And, fair enough. We all need things, and we shouldn't begrudge the admirable pursuit of nice things.

But Sable illustrates the precarious path these wishes set the children on.

Once the children have wished for and received their material desires (cars, boats, etc.), the children wish for fame and external recognition.

The dichotomy between recognition and loneliness is illustrated beautifully, showing how two of the three children become more separated from their friend who achieves his wishes as the wishes progress in their narcissistic nature.

Eventually, achievement of each subsequent wish creates a more and more apparent separation between the recipient of the wish and the people around him. 

The fulfillment of the wishes are also a double-edged sword. They create a need for a more exciting next wish while at the same time driving the wisher further into isolation – the very isolation he is trying to escape.

Eventually, the wishes become a manifestation of an active abandonment of true companionship. The wisher, being brought further and further away from closeness with others, resorts to seeking honor and power instead.

We see one child wish for a monster under his bed, unconcerned for his friend who is actually afraid of monsters under the bed.

Another child wishes for a fiery dragon with only room for one passenger on its back.

The children (always just one of them) wish for a personal ice cream maker and cookie baker, suggesting the casting away of reciprocal friendship, the backbone of a meaningful relationship.

Eventually, Sable suggests a child might consider wishing for a recurring, daily birthday, where all his friends (subjects) line up in a dystopian Groundhog Day to pile more gifts on the mountain of presents one child sits atop, alone.

This theme continues brilliantly, until one child wishes for the “Biggest, meanest fort in town.”

The child has come to the end of the line. His originally innocent narcissism has bloomed into something uglier than the carefree fulfillment of his own desires. 

This is resentment, and Sable gently communicates that alone and resentful is where and how you’ll find yourself if your life’s aim is pointed toward nothing other than your own needs and materialistic desires.

Two of the children remain outside the fortified castle, barred from entry, while the fort’s owner sits alone hundreds of feet above his two exiled friends. None of the children are happy with how things turned out.

Least of all the child who’s ultimate wish was granted.

Sable then goes on to illustrate one’s most fundamental and truest desires – the desire for love, the desire for companionship, the most elemental human need for a friend – can only be achieved by helping others. 

The happiness a wisher seeks is only possible by developing a sensitivity to the life circumstances of those around you, and being willing to do something about it.

More importantly, Sable teaches children that small actions matter. Baking a simple cake in the company of friends is more meaningful and satisfying than living in the greatest castle without whom to share the experience with.

We are nearing the Jewish holiday of Purim as I write this.

Maimonides states that out of the three ritualistic obligations of the Holiday (eating a festive meal, giving out gifts of food and drink to your neighbor, and giving charity to the poor), giving charity to the poor, to widows and to orphans is the most important obligation to fulfill.

Maimonides explains there is nothing that brings a person more satisfaction than to “gladden the hearts of the downtrodden and to uplift a crushed spirit.” Making that commandment the most important on the Holiday of Purim.

Sable echoes Maimonides ancient wisdom in What Would You Wish For. 

Life is most meaningful (perhaps only meaningful), when we give of ourselves to lift the spirits of the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the disenchanted.

When we stop and look down to see who is beneath us gazing up to the heavens for recognition, for help, for a hand to hold.

A meager meal shared with friends is more satisfying than enormous material success achieved by leaving those who need you behind.

And most empowering, as Sable subliminally teaches, every child, regardless of intelligence, talent or socioeconomic status, has the innate power to grant themselves life’s most worthy (and elusive) wish; to spread friendship and togetherness and to be a light upon the world.

As long as there is less wishing and more doing.

Get yourself a copy (or two or three) of What Would You Wish For here.

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