For every “Goodnight Moon” or “Poky Little Puppy”, there’s thousands of kids’ books out there that don’t become standards at bedtime or preschool story hour. And in the case of these books, the reasons why are obvious, starting with murder and cannibalism.
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
You might look at this 1928 book’s cover and think “animal hoarding,” but honestly, that would be a merciful option in this story.
An elderly husband and wife are lonely; she decides the best solution is a cat. So the husband heads out and finds a big field of millions and billions of cats. But all the kitties are SO darn cute he can’t pick which one to take home, so they follow him back instead. He shows the cats to his wife, who is so blown away by all the precious, adorable kitties that she asks the cats to choose the prettiest of their group.
THE TWIST: Do the cats take a vote? Have a cat beauty pageant? Hell, no. They get into an all-out orgy of violence and literally eat each other alive.
“If only we had listened to Bob Barker and had them fixed!”
The elderly folks decide to get the hell out of dodge and hide in the house as this clowder of cats becomes an all-you-can-murder buffet. They return to find the field empty, except for one surviving cat, who hid during the massacre because it thought it was too skinny to be pretty. Cat goes home with the old folks, it gets less skinny, the end.
So, looks don’t matter, not after you’ve witnessed a brutal, cannibalistic display that turned cat against cat, and have to life with that memory burned into your kitty brain. Meow.
Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
This Newbery Award winner is the tale of a little doll made from twigs, with a hickory-nut noggin. When her owner moves away and leaves her behind, Miss H has to live outdoors though a New England Winter. Can she survive, with only the critters of the forest to rely on? What sounds like a cute story about learning to live in harmony with nature quickly turns sociopathic. Miss H is spoiled and soft from living with a kid all her life, and has no idea how to survive in the wild. She acts like a self-righteous, judgmental prick to every animal she meets.
THE TWIST: In a bizarre metaphor for spiritual rebirth, a squirrel who did his best to help Miss Hickory but just got even more shit for it decides to eat her hickory-nut head.
“I was known ‘round here as the Jeffrey Dahmer of squirrels. Until I killed the bunnies who gave me that nickname. They sure made a delicious stew!”
This leads to the epiphany that hey, her head was just BRINGIN’ HER DOWN, MAN, and she lives a more carefree life without a head. Miss Hickory eventually decides to climb an apple tree, graft her wooden body to it, and ascend to a higher plane of existence by becoming one with the tree. Is this about transhumanism? Or is it a Christian allegory? Pick whichever is less disturbing or confusing for your kid!
Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis
In this star-crossed tale, a caterpillar and tadpole fall in love, and vow never to change: “She was his beautiful rainbow and he was her shiny black pearl.” Of course that “Don’t go changin’, baby” thing gets shot to hell pretty quick, given the basic rules of biology.
Tadpole becomes a frog and eventually caterpillar takes to her cocoon. There, she realizes that perhaps we can’t help changing, and it’s just part of life. What a refreshingly realistic moral! She breaks free in her new butterfly form, optimistic about the future.
THE TWIST: Setup for a nice moral? More like setup to expose the pointless cruelty of the universe. The tadpole-turned-frog sees the beautiful butterfly, and, like that kid at school who used to steal your lunch, he thinks, “That looks good” and snatches it up in his mouth. Gulp. Then, he wonders where his beloved caterpillar has gone. Dude, couldn’t you ask the butterfly/caterpillar for her name? Did neither of you know ANYTHING about one another’s species or lifestyles? Maybe this love affair was doomed from the start. How Shakespearean.
The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg
Yes, this is from the guy who brought you Jumanji(and Zathura). Being trapped in a board game is just the tip of the iceberg in the Van Allsburg zone. In this surreal tale of karmic justice, our protagonist is Monsieur Bibot, a fussy French dentist who beats his dog, Marcel, enjoys hurting people when pulling their teeth, and is generally an all-around douchenozzle. When an elderly client can’t pay him in money, she offers two figs instead, saying they will ‘make his dreams come true’. He accepts (this seems out of character) but her words prove to be literal: after eating a fig, Bibot goes to sleep and dreams that he’s walking down the street dressed in his undies. In a rather phallic image, the Eiffel tower droops over as everyone stops to laugh at Monsieur Pantsless.
There better be some shrinkage, or that spike on top is gonna kill somebody.
And what do you know- when Bibot wakes up, the exact same thing is happening in the real world, right down to the flaccid tower! If he dreams wisely, power and wealth will be his! Only problem is, Marcel already ate the second fig. So what does Bibot do? In lieu of going all Christopher Nolan and implanting ideas right in the poor dog’s brain, he tries to influence his pet’s dreams by repeating “Bibot is the richest man on earth” to Marcel.
THE TWIST: Bibot wakes up the next day to see….that he and the dog have swapped places. Trapped in the dog’s body, he watches as his old self beckons, “Time for your walk. Come to Marcel.”
“I have a mouth. And I must drool.”
Just goes to show, kids, that every dog has his day- of wearing his owner as a meat suit.
The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden
Rumer Godden, an author who sadly may be most remembered today for inspiring the name of Rumer Willis, was basically writing the Toy Story franchise before it existed. Just about all her children’s books feature dolls going through a spiritual or existential crisis of some kind, lamenting their lack of free will and the roles they’ve been forced to play in life. Fun and games? Not so much.
Tottie is a little wooden doll who serves as the head of an unbalanced family. The father figure Mr. Plantaganet is the most emotionally fragile and nervous member of the group. This may have something to do with his former abusive owners, who kept him in a dark cupboard after ripping off his clothes and the painted ‘skin’ of his hand. His ‘wife’, Birdie, frequently sings her thoughts out loud like the media’s idea of a schizophrenic. Tottie’s little ‘brother’ Apple acts and looks like a typical kid. So it’s up to Tottie herself, the oldest and wisest toy, to keep the others safe and sane-even though she’s carved to look about 12 years old.
At first their main problem is the lack of a real dollhouse to live in. Then their young owners, a pair of sisters, are left a fancy dollhouse in their great-aunt’s will. Of course, as in Toy Story, it’s a hollow utopia. It turns out Tottie used to belong to that aunt and once lived in her dollhouse. When the house arrives, it holds another toy: an old enemy of Tottie’s named Marchpane. Marchpane is a beautiful doll who sees every other doll as a threat to her glory and every kid as someone to exploit. In a turn that gives new meaning to the phrase “who’s playing who,” Marchpane immediately influences the kids to see HER as the favorite toy, which includes making the doll family into her servants. This all happens while the family is living in the very dollhouse they prayed for. And the manipulation doesn’t end there….
THE TWIST : There’s a reason this book has been dubbed “The first children’s story to include a murder” and is also reminiscent of Toy Story 3: death by fire. Marchpane uses her vaguely defined powers of persuasion to get one of the owners to light a lamp in the dollhouse, a lamp that is powered by a real birthday candle. Why? Because Marchpane knows Apple (who, remember, has the mind and body of a child) will want to lean in to touch the flame. That’s right, Marchpane intends to watch a little kid burn to death just for the hell of it. But um…’happily’, Apple is saved when ditzy Birdie gets all heroic and steps between him and the flame- but she’s made of celluloid, and BURNS UP INSTANTLY. The end.
First children’s book with a murder ? Maybe it wouldn’t be called murder in court. First one where the lovable ‘goofy’ character commits self-immolation? Damn well might be.
Model A Monster by Colin Caket
This one’s a doozy. All images and thanks go to http://babbletrish.blogspot.com and Tv Tropes, where I heard about the book. I hope she won’t mind me spreading the word. As this craft book starts out, it’s a celebration to all things dinosaur-y. Why, these guys are everywhere! In balsa wood, in shoeboxes….even in ice cream! The only limit is your imagination.
Then we get to the end. Of the book…and so much more.
THE TWIST: In a dark reveal that M.Night would approve of (and then rip off, with James McAvoy as Milk Carton Brontosaurus ) our author says that based on how humans have caused the extinction of so many other species, WE were the real monsters all along, not the dinosaurs.
“NOOOO! Now dinosaurs will make sculptures of HUMANS using macaroni!”
In addition to condemning the entire freakin’ human race, Caket claims we’ll die out after blowing ourselves up. This book was written in and for the “Protect and Survive”-era UK, so that probably hit way too close to home.
“Mummy, how powerful is the average nuclear bomb?” “WHAT? Nigel, put that book down.”
Finally, Caket predicts those who will take our place after the blight of humanity is gone. Apparently, the Bible got it wrong: it’s not the meek that will inherit the earth, it’s bats. And their lice. Oh, and earth’s gone. Hope you enjoyed art class today, kids!
“Teacher, if the lice are just going to take over, why do I have to wash my hair?”
“Nigel, report to the Headmaster’s office. NOW.”
Baa by David Macaulay
This book isn’t just for kids- though it still appeared in the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature !! Don’t let the cute cover fool you, this little package packs quite a punch.
On a mysteriously abandoned earth, sheep begin using all the things humans left behind, acquire sentience, and build a society not too different from our own.
Hey, a cartoony world of sheep! That’s kind of cute. But where’d all the people go? What wiped them out? Let’s just say it’s easy to guess the humans’ fate when the sheep suddenly find themselves running low on resources….
THE TWIST: That’s right, you guessed it- BAA is an all-sheep follow up to Soylent Green!
Our extinction came from eating each other and now the sheep are doing the exact same thing, thanks to the newly created foodstuff BAA. It plays out as you’d expect, but the last lines are still damn unsettling. The worst part is, we saw how the sheep society started, so who knows how many times the whole cycle will repeat once the sheep are gone? What if WE weren’t the first race on earth to fall victim to the cycle-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!
Is there a moral we can take away from all this madness? Not really, because life isn’t wrapped up with a neat little moral, like many children’s books are. But in researching this article, I will say: as creepy as these books are, there’s more life in them than the endless movie/tv tie-in books or celebrity vanity projects crowding shelves and tablets. Sure, your kids might not be sleeping well after these bedtime stories, but their trauma will have serviced creative thinking! It evens out.