Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

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 Lillian Hoban 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.

 

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 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?

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