Children's literature has come a long way since the Dick and Jane primers of 60-some years ago. Kids today have the luxury of turning to old favorites like Green Eggs and Ham, or to new classics like Pinkalicious. They also have their choice of books that are, shall we say, nontraditional. Quirky. Okay, let's just say it: Some children's books are downright weird. In some cases, that's a good thing; in others, maybe not so much.
When you look at the history of kid-lit, though, it's all weird. Those classic fairy tales children have loved for generations are downright grotesque in their original forms. Cinderella's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by birds at her wedding. Snow White's stepmother tries to kill her not once, but three times (the poison apple comes after a poisoned hair comb and too-tight corset strings fail). In Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid, the young heroine is rescued from a fate of becoming sea foam by ethereal "daughters of the air" who bring her to a sort of purgatory where she can earn an immortal soul by doing good deeds for a few centuries. Nothing to it!
Then there are the famous weird books we grew up with ourselves and loved for their very quirkiness. Think of Willy Wonka, whose candy-making paradise becomes a hell for greedy kids. Alice meeting talking cats and mad hatters. Max, bossing around an island full of grotesque monsters. Meatballs and pancakes falling from the sky. Cats in hats balancing cakes and rakes. If anything, the gentler Llama Llama and Fancy Nancy tales are more of the exception to the genre.
Take a look at some of the oddball titles available at your local library or through Amazon. Some are intentionally weird, while a few are unexpected eyebrow-raisers.
1. "The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales," by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith
From the moment Chicken Little's "sky is falling" warning comes true in the form of the whole table of contents crashing down, you'll know this isn't your typical once-upon-a-time. Cinderella and Rumplestiltskin come together in a hilarious mashup. The Ugly Duckling grows up to be... an ugly duck, of course. And the Gingerbread Man gets a new look in the form of the repellent Stinky Cheese Man. Definitely not for fairy-tale purists, but a must for everyone else.
2. "This Is My Book!" by Mark Pett
You'd think that being an author and illustrator would give you exclusive control over your own creation, right? Maybe not... especially if the characters you create want to tell a story of their own. Let's just say that chaos ensues.
3. "The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors," by Drew Daywalt
A must-read for kids who loved Daywalt's popular The Day the Crayons Quit. How did the popular finger game get started? Seems Rock, Paper, and Scissors used to live in different parts of the house, where they competed against other common items before they met each other ("ROCK VERSUS CLOTHESPIN!"). Behind the whimsy is an interesting lesson: Sometimes it's actually good to lose.
4. "Splat!" by Jon Burgerman
The hot trend in children's lit today is books that invite kids to "control" the action by manipulating the pages. In this case, readers pelt the face in the book with cream pies, water balloons, and other satisfyingly messy objects. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in pure fun.
5. "That Is NOT A Good Idea!" by Mo Willems
The beloved author of the Knuffle Bunny, Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie books presents a twisted retelling of the gullible-victim vs. crafty-predator plot. Told in silent-movie style, the story follows a hungry fox as he sweet-talks a goose into following him home for dinner. But if you think you know the ending, think again.
6. "A Bad Case of Stripes," by David Shannon
What happens when you stop eating your favorite vegetable because you're worried about seeming weird to your friends? Um... you break out in rainbow stripes, it seems. And the more the "experts" try to help Camilla, the worse her problem becomes. Only by being brave enough to eat her favorite lima beans again is she cured.
7. "The Worst Book in the Whole Entire World," by Joey Acker
What makes this the worst? Well, you could start with the fact that there's only one sentence on every page (except for the one over there, with two). And let's not even get started on those no-no words that crop up inside (gasp! Booger!). Of course, you couldn't possibly read this weird book to your kids. At least, not just once.
8. "I Need a New Butt!" by Dawn McMillan
When a boy suddenly discovers his rear end has a crack, he assumes it's broken and goes out in search of a new one. But (pun unintended) what kind should he get? Metal? Rocket-propelled? Be prepared for lots of giggles with this peculiar tale.
9. "All My Friends Are Dead," by Avery Monsen and Jory John
Presumably for kids, but with a definite adult sensibility, this picture book introduces us to a dino and other characters who sigh over the fates of their kind. (A tree's friends are all end tables now; a Yeti's pals are nothing but hoaxes.) The facts of existence have never been so simply laid bare.
10. "I'd Really Like to Eat a Child," by Sylviane Donnio
Young Achilles the crocodile is tired of eating bananas every day, and demands a different meal: the two-legged kind. Unfortunately, the child he finds is more than a match for him.
11. "Rootabaga Stories," by Carl Sandburg
The famed poet Carl Sandburg wrote these stories for his children nearly a century ago, and they may still appeal to kids willing to suspend their disbelief big-time (I certainly did, way back when). It's all about a village in the sky where it's not uncommon to find pigs with bibs and a guy with a hat and shoes made of popcorn. Is this for you? Depends on how you and your kids feel about stories with titles like "The Potato Face Blind Man Who Lost the Diamond Rabbit on His Gold Accordion."
12. "Llama Destroys the World," by Jonathan Stutzman
This is definitely not the Llama that your kids are familiar with. This title character doesn't wear red pajamas or go to school; instead, he eats so much cake that he rips his dancing pants, which results in a black hole and the resulting devastation. Oh, well, at least we know who to blame.
13. "The Long Journey of Mister Poop/El Gran Viaje del Senor Caca," by Angele Delaunois
How does that apple go from being a tasty snack to a deposit in the toilet? This book explains it all for kids — and in two languages, no less. Best not to read this too close to lunch or bedtime.
14. "Outside Over There," by Maurice Sendak
This tale from the children's-book master is a lot darker than his Where the Wild Things Are. Young Ida, charged with protecting her baby sister, lets her guard slip for a moment, which is all it takes for goblins to come in and kidnap the baby to be a goblin bride. Fortunately, Ida saves the day, but older siblings may still be a bit freaked out.
15. "Russian Fairy Tales," by Alexander Afanasyev
If this seems like a "normal" book choice to you, then you're clearly not familiar with Russian folk-tale culture. Like the Grimm and Andersen tales, they feature brave heroes and heroines and (usually) happy endings, but they're also full of gory details and weird ordeals (often the protagonist has to spend weeks walking in iron shoes and eating iron bread as they go searching for their true love). Then there's the recurring character Baba Yaga, a hideous witch who eats children and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs. Yeah, she usually helps out the hero in the end, but still...brrr.
16. "Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?" by Richard Scarry
I grew up on Scarry's books, so I know how helpful they are in expanding preschoolers' vocabulary. But looking at this career book through a 21st-century lens, it's hard to ignore the fact that the female characters are either apron-wearing housekeepers or hold "girl" jobs like flight attendant and seamstress. One of the residents of Busytown is a buckskin-wearing raccoon called "Wild Bill Hiccup." But weirdest of all: Take a close look at the butcher in the picture. Yep, that's a pig...slicing sausage. Weird and cannibalistic.