We have many, many different kinds of books in my daughter’s home library. Funny books, beautiful books, repetitive books, moralizing books, movie tie-in books, over-her-head books – even though most of those books are either picture books or early readers, just within those two formats, there are so many different subtle variations and sub-categories that it boggles the mind. But, there is one category, perhaps more than any other, which remains constantly on my radar, particularly at bedtime. Those are the books that my daughter absolutely loves, but that totally and completely creep me out.
Last week, Time Magazine critic and author Lev Grossman wrote a great article titled “Hating Ms. Maisy: The Joy, Sorrow and Neurotic Rage of Reading to Your Children” that should resonate with any parent who’s had to suffer through their fiftieth straight bedtime reading of their child’s favorite Berenstain Bear or Magic Tree House book. (BTW, Grossman’s novel The Magicians is definitely on my “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” list.) Grossman talks about the unhealthy relationship that starts to develop between a parent and a bedtime book that’s fallen into heavy rotation – in his words: “The fact that my children’s taste is not my own, while obvious, is one I’ve found strangely hard to accept” – and I know exactly what he’s talking about.
One of my favorite parts in Grossman’s article is when he discusses how, after multiple readings, a parent’s “own unresolved neuroses and secret fears” can start getting wrapped up in their child’s favorite bedtime stories. (“Picture books can be kind of like Rorschach blots that way. You see what you want to see.”) Citing some examples, Grossman mentions that:
I find Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman creepy beyond belief—that snowman reminds me of the frightful Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. The way he tries on the boy’s sleeping parents’ clothing… you can see he’s thinking about doing away with them, right then and there, with his bare, blobby snow-hands.
My first reaction to that paragraph was to laugh for two minutes straight. My second reaction was “Hey… my kid LOVES The Snowman!”
And she does. The Snowman might be one of our most frequently read bedtime books of all time. I’ve had magical experiences reading my daughter The Snowman after a long day playing out in the cold and building our own snowman. But, despite my family’s reverence for the book, I completely see where Grossman is coming from.
The story IS kind of freaky. A boy’s snowman comes to life. The boy invites it into his house late at night. The snowman and the boy sneak around the house, performing a series of random, mundane activities – staring at his sleeping parents, trying on clothes, playing in the family car, cooking a full sit-down dinner – that all seem fairly sinister in a house full of sleeping people in the middle of the night. The boy and the snowman then fly around the world (?), return home, and the next day, the snowman melts into oblivion. (Please understand that I’m deliberately summarizing the book in an odd fashion. We really do love that book.) And, while the potentially unsettling nature of the snowman’s nocturnal visit has never really emerged while reading the book to my daughter at bedtime, the second Grossman mentioned his own darker take on the book, as a parent, I immediately thought, “Oh yeah, I can see that.”
And why can I see Grossman’s point so easily? Because I have my own list of books from my daughter’s home library that weird me out to my very core.
Case in point – another one of Raymond Briggs’ picture books – The Bear.
The Bear is a gorgeous, large-format picture book in which a young English girl, who’s cuddling with her teddy bear one night, wakes up to find a huge polar bear in her room. She manhandles the bear into bed with her and, in the morning, she tells her parents about the new house guest. The parents quickly dismiss the bear as an imaginary friend and the girl spends the day trying to manage having this enormous animal in her house. She has to feed the bear, wash the bear, clean up after the bear – it’s quite an ordeal.
Briggs is an amazing illustrator and there are some wonderfully tender moments in The Bear, but there are also these odd moments where the little girl starts ranting and raving about The Bear and… I’ll admit, they creep me out. And I’m aware that, like Grossman said, I am probably bringing my own “neuroses and secret fears” to the text, but, when the girl starts in on these monologues and I have to read them aloud to my daughter, I find myself adopting the tone and cadence of a serial killer or, at the very least, of a demonically-possessed kewpie doll that’s preparing to slaughter a suburban London family.
For example (and imagine me doing my worst “English little girl voice” while reading this):
You know Mummy said you could have
the spare bedroom?
Well, she’s never once seen you
and she may change her mind when
she finds out how big you are.
And if you are going to do poos and wees
all over the house, she’ll never let you stay.
Mummy and Daddy mustn’t see you
or they might put you out.
Do you understand?
Will you pay attention when I’m talking to you!
He’s so big and quiet, Mummy.
He’s the silentest thing I’ve ever know,
He’s like a great big white ghost…
I can’t even hear him breathing
except when he cuddles me.
Then I can hear his heart beating,
too. His heart goes ever so slow—
it goes BOOM… ages ages ages
BOOM… ages ages ages BOOM,
Now, please, Raymond Briggs fans, I do understand that I am being fantastically unfair to The Bear at the moment. The fact that, when I read this little girl’s voice aloud, I immediately fall into a Village of the Damned/Bad Seed/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane voice is my own damn fault. That’s me bringing my own baggage to the text. But, regardless, the book still inspires that reaction when I read it, so there is something deep in the animal centers of my brain that is simply creeped out by what I’m reading in The Bear.
I have the same reaction to reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. First, let me say that The Giving Tree is one of the most visually striking picture books I’ve ever seen and I think Silverstein has done more for the popularity of children’s poetry than almost any other author in the history of literature. (No home is complete without a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends.)
But, even though, yes, I know, it is a card-carrying classic, all of the martyr imagery in The Giving Tree makes me DEEPLY uncomfortable. Having to watch as the tree self-mutilates itself just to satisfy the selfish needs of an ungrateful boy who grows into an ungrateful man… it makes me shudder. Fine, it may be making a statement about unconditional love or the selflessness of parents or maybe it’s even making a subversive commentary on those very concepts, but, at the end of the day, when I read The Giving Tree, I feel like I’m watching a battered lover going back, again and again, to their abusive partner because “he/she really loves me!”
Again, I know that’s a subjective and perhaps unfair reading of the text. I KNOW there are better and more thoughtful ways to interpret the meanings of The Giving Tree. But my first instinctive reaction while reading it is to flinch, like I’m watching someone get punched in the face. And that unnerves me down to my soul.
Am I alone in this? Does anyone else have a children’s book that really creeps them out? A book that they hide in the back of their bookshelf in hopes that their kid forgets that it exists? And I didn’t even mention the sheer awfulness of the way C.S. Lewis treats Susan at the end of The Last Battle, the final chapter of the Narnia series.
If you have a kids’ book that unnaturally creeps you out, even though your child loves it, share it in the comments section below. Perhaps it can serve as a warning to other parents or, at the very least, maybe others will validate your deep and unnatural fear of Little Critter.