Leo Lionni’s picture books are wonderful for thinking with children about philosophical questions. I’m working on a paper about Lionni and philosophy for children, and last night I read his An Extraordinary Egg.
In the story, Jessica. a frog, lives with two other frogs. Jessica is “full of wonder,” and frequently ventures out on long walks and returns shouting with excitement about what she’s found, even if it’s “nothing but an ordinary little pebble.” One day, she finds what she thinks is a perfect white stone, almost as big as she is. She brings it home, and the other frogs point out that it is not a pebble, but a chicken egg. “How do you know that?” Jessica asks. “There are some things you just know,” one of the frogs replies.
Pretty soon, the egg cracks open and a “long, scaly creature that walked on four legs” emerges. The three frogs all shout, “A chicken!” They spend days playing with the “chicken,” and the chicken and Jessica become great friends. One day a bird tells the chicken that her mother has been searching for her, and Jessica and the chicken follow the bird to find the enormous alligator that is the chicken’s mother. When Jessica returns home, she tells the other frogs that the mother chicken called her baby, “My sweet little alligator.” “What a silly thing to say,” one of the frogs comments, and they all can’t stop laughing.
Like all Lionni’s books, the illustrations are marvelous and can themselves raise many aesthetic questions: How do the words and drawings together tell the story? What feelings do the drawings create? How do drawings create feelings? Would the story be the same without the drawings? The words? Etc.
But the story also provokes questions about knowledge and how we know what we know. Why does Jessica believe her fellow frog when told the alligator is a chicken? Why does she continue to believe it even when she meets the mother alligator? Often we believe we have knowledge because of testimony from other people – can such information be knowledge? Do the words of other people give us a basis for believing something? How do we determine which testimony to trust? Does it depend on how the people speaking to us know what they think they know? How often do we hold onto our beliefs even in the face of evidence that they are not true?