Children’s Book Week: Bizarre Children’s Literature

Did you know this is Children’s Book Week? My posts this week are going to focus on reading to children and children’s books, from the weird to the patience-building.

There are some things you remember from childhood as odd, blurry phantoms, cloaked in a haze of nostalgia and strangeness. You always wonder if what you remember was less weird – or perhaps more! – than you recall, warped by a child’s view on the world. If you’re really lucky, some of those things are books. I had a book growing up like that about dogs that lived in a city like humans, a canine version of friends. The main character had a bulldog as a boss and moved to a little stone cottage in the woods at the end. These days, my Mom and I can find no trace of this book on the Internet, not helped by the fact that our best guess at the title is the rather obvious but most likely wrong Dog City. Perhaps due to the loss of this work of my childhood, my Mom appears committed to keeping Sprout’s bookshelf well-stocked with picture books that are just plain odd. Between my mom’s contributions and others, he’s starting to have quite the collection of surreal books. None of them are nearly so awful as the ones on this list, but I hope a few leave their fond, vague traces in memory.

Edamame and Edapapa cover with two beans in a pod
Edamame and Edapapa: This book is about a mommy bean and a daddy bean with a pet sesame seed. The only things that distinguish them from each other is that the mommy bean (Edamame – say it out loud) has a pearl necklace and the daddy bean has a luxurious mustache. One day, a paper crane drops off a baby bean for them. The End. It’s short, it’s based on a very silly pun and it’s adorable. But anything that involves talking plants – especially ones that use phrases like “teeny weeny beany” – is inherently weird.

Secret Life of Squirrels cover with a squirrel checking a mailbox

The Secret Life of Squirrels:This book tells the story of a “very unusual squirrel” that cooks on his grill, plays the piano, reads, and cleans his house more than we do ours. None of this would be that odd for children’s literature, except that the book is made up of photos of real squirrels interacting with tiny domestic tableaux. The author actually handcrafted little beds, chairs, bookshelves and ice cream stands, smeared peanut butter on them and took photos of squirrels when they came to investigate. It’s the sort of hobby that if it was your friend, you might suggest joining a Meetup group. But as the author now has a best-selling children’s book, what do I know?

Dragons Love Tacos cover with a dragon gobbling tacos
Dragons Love Tacos: According to this book, dragons love tacos and parties. But not spicy salsa, because then they get indigestion and will burn your house down. What makes this one odd is how it blatantly and purposely ignores all cultural trappings around a renowned mythological creature, creating an entirely new take in only a couple of pages. Also, the fact that the kid actually has his house burn down is kind of shocking. The success of the kid’s dragon taco party also raises a lot of questions – How did he advertise this party? Where do dragons get their community calendars? Have dragons just been going to Taco Bell in disguise (like the animals in Little Dee) and we’be been missing it the whole time? While I thought this book was kind of dumb at first, I now respect how weirdly radical it is. Sprout has also given it his ultimate approval – Figment the Dragon has now been renamed “Taco.”

This is Not My Hat cover with a small fish with a hatI Want my Hat Back / This is Not My Hat: It is very rare when a children’s book involves one character eating another, especially when the protagonist is the one doing the eating. In both these books, a top predator gets its hat stolen (a bear and a large fish respectively), finds the perpetrator, and then presumably eats them. While it’s possible there was a peaceful negotiation (as one hopeful child asked the author in a story he told at the National Book Festival, “What happened to the bunny?”), it seems extremely unlikely. Especially because the bear in I Want My Hat Back says, “What bunny. I would never eat a bunny.” Riiiight. Perhaps the most bizarre thing is that you totally feel like the thief deserves it, even (and especially) in the book where the narrator is the thief!

Any Maurice Sendak book besides Where the Wild Things Are: Where the Wild Things Are is odd by itself, but his other books make it look like Dick and Jane. When we were at the library, I flipped through some of his books and was frankly shocked – not offended, just surprised – at how bizarre they were. From full frontal nudity to children kidnapped by goblins to cartoon homeless people, his books mine the depths of dark innocence. Some of them have the same feel as the old fairy tales, with things that lurk in the woods and pose true dangers to children. I suspect they are an acquired taste for adults, so used to relatively simple ideas in children’s stories and not the surreal grotesque. I need to give them a second look, quite honestly.

What are your favorite weird children’s books?

12 thoughts on “Children’s Book Week: Bizarre Children’s Literature

  1. Sendak’s Big Green Book is about a kid who lives with his mean Aunt and Uncle. He discovers a Big Green Book of magic and somewhat nasty hijinks ensue. Sendak did the illustrations to a tale by Robert Graves. I was shocked at how nasty this kid is when I re-read it as an adult. It appealed to my little boy id, I suppose.

    • I had seen you mention that one before and thought that I need to look into it. It definitely sounds interesting now!

      As for “children doing naughty things,” I’m pretty sure that’s an eternal trope of children’s literature that parents never particularly like. Beatrix Potter created an entirely new character because one kid told her that “Peter Rabbit wasn’t naughty enough.” It’s worth keeping in mind that Peter Rabbit is much more sanitized now too, so that was saying a lot. While sneaking into McGregor’s garden seems harmless today, it says on literally the first page of the Peter Rabbit story that Peter’s dad was eaten by Mr. McGregor in a rabbit pie.

  2. The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater. What is very obviously a planned suburban community with a HOA is disrupted when a can of orange paint falls out of the sky onto one of the houses, inspiring its owner to transform his home in all the ways he wanted to but couldn’t because they were too weird. This in turn causes a chain reaction of people remodeling their homes in increasingly bizarre ways until the very concept of “normal” is shattered.

    Read it when I was six, and in hindsight it dramatically influence my worldview.

    • I have heard amazing things about Daniel Pinkwater, especially from Shaenon Garrity, who is heavily influenced by his work. For some reason, he was one of those I never read as a kid, but I really should.

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