Welcome to the Dark Side, Children

By Portia Turner


Have you ever noticed that children's books are dark? And not just a little dark. They can be incredibly, insanely dark, and we just read them and think “Oh, that’s cute! I’m going to make sure to share it with a small child in my life.” But when you stop and actually look at a lot of these books, they are actually quite upsetting. Take these following books for example:


A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins

This book messed with my heart and my emotions. The book opens on a lion who has a lot of animal friends. Slowly, the other animals start to disappear, one by one. What is this book, I was thinking. This is so upsetting! The lion is eating all his friends! But then, SURPRISE! They are all alive and were disappearing because they were busy setting up a surprise party for the lion. Aww, I thought. This is actually adorable. Until (SPOILER!) the lion decides that he is hungry and eats all of his friends! All of the friends that had just thrown him a surprise party! What the hell? What kind of lesson are we trying to teach children?! Don’t worry, children, you may have awesome friends, but it’s okay to eat them if you decide that you’re hungry.

I Want My Hat Back written and illustrated by Jon Klassen

What’s the deal with books about animals who eat other animals? In this children’s book, a bear is looking for his lost hat, stopping to ask animals along his way whether they have seen his hat. Each animal says no, so the bear continues on. At one point, he passes a rabbit wearing a red hat who says that he has not seen the bear’s hat. Later, the bear realizes that the rabbit HAD seen his hat and goes back to get it. The final page shows the bear, wearing his hat and a squirrel asking if the bear has seen a rabbit wearing a hat. The bear responds, “No. Why are you asking me? I haven’t seen him. I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit.” What a lie! This bear clearly ate the rabbit because it took his hat! Why and how is this okay? (Also, if you want another book that is dark like this, try Klassen’s book This is Not My Hat.)

Leo: A Ghost Story written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Christian Robinson

When I first started working at the bookstore I currently work at, all of my co-workers told me that I needed to read this book. “It’s so cute!” they said. “It makes me so happy and smiley,” they raved. And yet it disturbed me greatly. In order for there to be a cute story about a little ghost boy, that means that there has to be a dead child. A DEAD LITTLE BOY. And that was so incredibly disturbing to me. At one point, he even reminisces about his time when he was a living little boy. And he had to stop playing and having fun BECAUSE HE DIED. This book hurt my heart.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

This book has lead to hours of debates among the staff. Some love it. Some hate it. But we all agree that this book is disturbing. This is a classic, and tons of kids are brought up reading this book. Looking back on it now that I am an adult, it is clear that this book is tragic. A tree gives and gives and gives until it no longer exists. While it is trying to teach kids to be considerate and help others, it reads to me as more of a warning. Don’t give too much of yourself to one person or they may kill you and turn your corpse into a boat. You know, things kids need to be worried about.

And these are only a small sampling of books with these themes. When looking for examples, I was reminded of all of the terrifying folk tales we are told as kids that we just accept. Why are we telling kids these things that terrify me now that I am an adult. Why didn’t they scare me so much when I was little?

Now, I don’t want you all to get the wrong idea about these books. They are all great. They are just incredibly dark and filled with death, and I want to know why. I need some answers.