Something I really miss about being a kid is how naïve I was. I didn't need to look deeply into the books I was reading, because they were just entertainment: pretty pictures, pretty words, exciting adventures, and narrow escapes. I had everyone read to me because I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the story and reading was hard. And hey, even TV used to read to us! ( Reading Rainbow , anyone?) It was awesome.
That didn't exactly last. I grew up, and started to think about the books I read. I started to make connections between the characters and myself. I became reflective and more self-aware. And I started asking questions like, What if I were to apply all the life experience and knowledge I've gained to the books I read as a kid?
Doing that ended up being pretty... well, disturbing. The books many of us read as kids are full of bizarre ideas. We could overlook them as kids because we weren't thinking anything through. Now, though? *shivers* The books below are full weird premises that in adult life are pretty disturbing to process. Nostalgic sigh for the little me who could ignore this stuff that was going on:
The Animorphs Series by K. A. Applegate
The cool thing about Animorphs is that the five kids who star in it get to turn into animals. But then one of them gets stuck like an eagle, so there's one terrifying thing. There’s also a whole complex back story with a "good" alien who gives the kids their morphing powers. But why does he do this? So that they can fight a war that’s secretly already going on here on Earth. So basically, he's recruiting them to be child soldiers. So, enjoy that.
Even creepier, the enemies that these recruited middle-schoolers have to face end up being these slug-like alien beings called Yeerks that crawl into people’s brains through their ears and take over their bodies: full-on bodysnatching. Anyone you know could potentially be a Yeerk host, coordinating with other Yeerks and planning on taking over the world. This is the stuff of nightmares and paranoia.
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Lots of people make a big hoo-ha about Mickey’s butt being exposed in this book, but it’s not the nudity that’s the problem — little kids have butts. The problem is the three big chefs with Hitler mustaches who want to bake Mickey into a cake. I'm not entirely sure what the implication is there, but no matter what, it's unnerving, and I'm not on board.
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
Many (OK, basically all) of Dr. Seuss’s books are political allegories. This one is one of the eerier ones because of its ending, or rather lack thereof . Yertle the Turtle speaks to kids because bullies are a thing even when you’re 4, and The Sneeches are pretty funny going around and around in the same machines over and over again. But what do we see in The Butter Battle Book? Enemies on two sides of a wall — Berlin — developing what is pretty obviously an atom bomb. And then… nothing. There’s no resolution. And the world is literally on the brink of total destruction. Enjoy reading that to your children, friends.
The Wump World by Bill Pete
This book is basically about how humans are destroying the world, except it’s about another world wherein these adorably fluffy smiling creatures called Wumps live. They live happily in meadows, frolic along grassy knolls, and are pretty clearly vegetarians. But, obviously, humans have to come in and screw everything up.
Excuse me, they're not humans — rather, an alien race (illustrated as blueish humanoids) invades the Wump World and industrializes it at a frighteningly fast rate. They build factories and buildings and cars and planes and everything smogs up the air and terrifies the Wumps. So the Wumps are forced to live underground, scared and hungry and sad, until the Pollutians — the aliens — leave, having used the world up entirely.
As a kid, I just felt sad for the Wumps and angry at the Pollutians. Maybe the moral is as simple as "don’t throw your candy wrapper on the ground." But as with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, reading The Wump World as an adult is a not-so-gentle reminder of how horrible the human race has been for the world.
Momo by Michael Ende
It’s not very surprising that the author who wrote The Neverending Story — which is beautiful but incredibly depressing and possibly a metaphor for purgatory — also wrote this book, Momo. Recently rereleased in English by McSweeney’s, the book plays very literally with the idea of “time is money." Time becomes a commodity in young Momo’s world. Gray men, charismatic and convincing (and creepy as all hell) manage to teach people to speed up their work, not to waste a second, and to invest their time with the gray men (as you'd invest money in a bank, to earn interest).
People who used to enjoy their work become speed-walking drones — most notably the street sweeper who used to sweep, and stop, and look at the world, and sweep, and stop, and take a breath. He now sweeps, sweeps, sweeps himself to exhaustion. The gray men suck all joy out of Momo's town and she's the only one trying to fight them. This sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Workaholism, lack of work-life balance, the feeling of being just a cog in a large corporate wheel…
Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman
In this book, a baby bird is left home alone (in his nest) and wanders off, as young’uns will do, to look for his mom. He asks everyone he meets if they’re his mother and they all say no. Understandably, he starts freaking out. As a kid, this was funny and endearing. As an adult, it's definitely not.
Whether you're a parent or remembering your own childhood, this idea of a tiny thing walking around alone looking for its mother is extremely scary. If you've ever gotten lost in a grocery store or a theme park or any other public place as a kid, you’ll remember — it’s fun for maybe two minutes before it becomes one of the scariest experiences of your young life. And if you're a parent who can't find your child? I can't even imagine the fear this book brings to mind.
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
When I looked up this book because I wanted to add it to this list, I was sure that what I was going to write about was how disrespectful and problematic this description of Sarah is: “plain.” She’s plain, tall, and apparently nothing else.
What I’d totally forgotten was that Sarah is a mail-order bride. Literally. The widowed “Papa” puts an ad in the newspaper asking for a wife to come take care of his kids, who’ve told him they miss their mother. So, not only does Papa find it really tough to be single (and a single dad), but he also interprets his kids’ grief over their mom as a request to acquire a new one. Papa’s answer to his difficulties is to go on the equivalent of 19th century Craigslist and post an m4w ad. Historically accurate? Yes. OK? No.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
One thing I liked about Matilda the movie more than in Matilda the book was how obviously horrible her parents are in the film. They are abusive in the books, too, but as a kid, I didn't really get how bad it was just from the words. As an adult, though, I have to say that the book’s subtlety is way more unsettling.
In the movie version, Matilda's powers are super-cool and she gets to keep them. In the book, Matilda’s magic comes to her because of her need for control in a neglectful household and a school ruled by fear. When she’s happy at the end of the book and living with Miss Honey, she doesn’t loses her powers. But it's OK, because she doesn’t need them. When I was little, I always thought that was silly. Why would she want to give up her magic? It’s so cool! As an adult, I realize that the premise of Matilda’s telekinesis is tragically familiar to children’s coping mechanisms in bad family situations.
Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
This book shouldn’t be traumatic to read as an adult. It really, really shouldn’t. It’s about a blue dot and a yellow dot. They live in a world full of dots (children) and blobs (adults). But the blue and yellow dots accidentally hug to hard and become one. A green dot. When they try to go home their parents don’t recognize them and don’t let them come in. It’s not until the now single green dot cries its heart out that it dissolves into two separately colored puddles of tears that reform into their original blue and yellow shapes.
I don’t want to read too deeply into this (because if I would, I’d get angry about the possible implication regarding miscegenation) but even a simple reading recently had me cringing with my hands up to my face. Losing oneself in a co-dependent relationship to the point where nobody recognizes you? That's terrifying.
Image: Anastasia Alén/Flickr