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Odd and Creepy Children's Classics

I was looking forward to the Independent’s round-up of bloodiest children’s bedtime stories but it turned out to be a disappointment. Nine of the ten are fairytales, but really, the observation that fairytales are bloody is hardly newsworthy. Kind of like noticing that football players get injured a lot.

The article made me thirst for something more startling -- a list of beloved children’s books that turn out to be downright creepy when you read them as an adult. (While I didn’t find one, I did find this wonderful list of odd contemporary picture books.) I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games, which is in many ways less creepy than one might expect, but the old chestnuts you settle down to read with your small ones and then discover, with increasing discomfort, are unexpectedly sadistic or disturbing or just plain weird. Here are four that come to mind.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Sometimes called “the co-dependent’s handbook,” this is a story about a loving, mother-like tree who gets hacked to pieces by the boy she loves. In the end, the boy – now an old man – rests on her lifeless stump. Kind of like Boxing Helena for preschoolers.

2. Thomas the Tank Engine by the Reverend W. Awdry
Maybe you’ve read the modern version, which had some of its more disturbing parts removed by marketing genius Britt Allcroft. But if you read the original you’ll discover that the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and the other train engines live, is a brutal and hierarchical place reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century English boarding school. The engines taunt and play tricks on one another and suck up to the Fat Controller (called Sir Topham Hatt in later versions) by roughing up the lowest members of the pecking order, the ill-natured freight cars. In a typical story, Henry, Gordon and James, the three top-tier engines, refuse to fetch their coaches which they say is “beneath them.” The Fat Controller responds by locking them in the engine shed, where they remain for the duration of the story.

"Henry, Gordon and James stayed shut in the Shed, and were cold, lonely and miserable," the story concludes. "They wished now they hadn't been so silly."
Goodnight children, pleasant dreams!

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban
I love the Frances books with their wonderful Garth Williams illustrations and their homey, childlike mood, but this is one of those books that feels pretty weird to a modern reader. Frances keeps getting out of bed because she’s creeped out by nighttime noises like the wind blowing the curtains. Finally, her irritated father tells her to stick a sock in it or she’ll get a spanking.

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”
“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.
“No,” said Father.
“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.
“Right!” said Father.
Once Father’s gone back to bed, Frances hears a moth knocking against the window.

Bump and thump.
His wings smacked the glass.
Whack and smack!
Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking.
And all of a sudden she was tired.
Nothing like fear of a beating to put your worries about moths in perspective, I guess.

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
Here’s the plot. Sylvester finds a magic rock that grants wishes. One day he gets menaced by a lion and wishes he was a rock. Poof, he’s a rock, and the magic pebble is now on the ground beside him. He can’t reach it because he’s a rock. He can’t call for help, because he’s a rock. His parents look for him, but he can’t call out to them, because he’s a rock. They conclude he’s dead. "They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.”
Years go by. Eventually Sylvester’s mother and father picnic right by the rock that was Sylvester and talk about how much they miss him.

How he wanted to shout, ‘Mother! Father! It’s me, Sylvester, I’m right here!’ But he couldn’t talk. He had no voice.

The fact that all ends happily does little to blunt the extreme creepiness of this scenario, which is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of.

What are your nominations for surprisingly creepy kids books?


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
The Empty Pants
Dr. Seuss' "What Was I Scared Of?" was a story in The Sneetches. I remember that even though the empty pants and the boy became friends in the end, those empty pants still gave me the creeps. Looking back, I think it was the way it was illustrated that was particularly creepy.
Oct. 20th, 2010 12:38 am (UTC)
Re: The Empty Pants
Dec. 2nd, 2010 04:29 am (UTC)
Re: The Empty Pants
My favorite weird childrens book is The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright. Doll Edith (same name as author's mother) and little bear are naughty so get spanked by a big manly bear. Really weird.
Mar. 28th, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC)
Strange and Satisfying Stories for Children
Oh...you must, must, must watch or read The Amazing Bone... It's about a little sweet girl pig dressed in a bonnet and dress who loves to daydream. She's walking home from school one day and that's where it starts to turn a bit dark. She's robbed, then kidnapped..crazy! Must check it out. Closes with a happy ending of course, but what a crazy ride. By the way, I also love The Giving Tree and Sylvester and the Magic Stone. quote from website: Here is yet another good picture book by William Steig: “The Amazing Bone.” This one, however, I introduce to you with a mild warning: there are some scary scenes in it that might frighten younger children. The story is about Pearl, a happy young pig who finds a talking bone. The bone says it does not want to go to its previous owner, a witch, it would rather stay with Pearl. So Pearl takes it. On the way home she is ambushed by robbers (that’s the scary part). The bone saves Pearl by making frightening sounds that drive the robbers away. But the adventure is not over yet. A hungry fox comes at Pearl next, and this one isn’t afraid of the noises the bone makes. In fact, the fox grabs the bone and puts it in his pocket. Then it takes Pearl and carries her away (another potentially scary moment). The story ends well, and I personally do not think it a scary book, especially keeping in mind what our kids get to see on TV these days. However, I’ve heard people say that their younger children were made a little uneasy by the above mentioned episodes, so I thought I would mention it. Rating: 9
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )