The Most Disturbing, Yet Popular, Children\’s Books

The Most Disturbing, Yet Popular, Children\’s Books

Disturbing, Yet Popular, Children\’s Books

All five of these popular, but disturbing stories are books I have read out loud to my classes, and even to my own children.  However, after reading them I was left wondering:  What kind of message am I sending with these stories?  I know this list will rub some people the wrong way, and they may strongly disagree with my conclusions.  Please keep in mind; this is only my humble opinion.

Where the Wild Things Are 

by Maurice Sendak

The least disturbing of the lot, but still… The story starts off with a mischievous boy chasing after his dog with a fork.  He is sent to bed without supper, so he tells his parents, “I will eat you!”  Once in his room, he has a wild adventure with monsters and returns to find a warm meal waiting for him.  He is unkind to animals and disrespectful to his parents, but in the end his parents realize the error of their ways and reward him with a good meal.

Message:  No matter what you do, it is fun to be bad because mom and dad will always cave in.

Love You Forever

by  Robert Munsch

This story made it on my Best Children\’s Books Ever Written  list simply because this is a best seller.  For some reason (maybe Oprah\’s fault) tons of people have purchased this book, and claim to love it.  Don\’t get me wrong, I have been known to cry at the end of this story.  That does not change the fact that one section of this book totally creeps me out.  The mother climbs a ladder and enters through a window, crawls across the floor so that she can hold her adult son and rock him as she sings a lullaby.  It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Message: It doesn\’t matter how old you get or where you go, you will NEVER get away from mommy.

Rainbow Fish

by Marcus Pfister

This book is disturbing right away.  A beautiful rainbow fish is shunned and ridiculed by his peers because he won\’t give them his scales.  After much peer pressure (including advice given by an authority figure) he chooses to give away his sparkling scales, and is finally accepted by the group.  In the end, he decides that giving away what makes him special is better than being alone.

Message:  Being different is bad, and should be avoided at all cost.

The Giving Tree 

by Shel Silverstein

This book about the relationship between a young boy and his favorite tree starts out nice enough.  The tree loves him, and enjoys spoiling the boy with simple things like providing limbs to climb on, and apples to eat.  But soon he grows tired of her, so she offers more and more of herself until all that is left is a pathetic stump.  Throughout the relationship the boy never says thank you, and doesn\’t seem to care that he has destroyed his friend in the end.

Message:  Give until it kills you.

                                        ~ or ~

  If someone offers you something, take it ALL – and then some.

Runaway Bunny  

by Margaret Wise Brown

This is another creepy mother\’s tale.  A little bunny wants desperately to get away from his mother, and he tells her different ways he plans to escape.  There are several disturbing images here:  First, he announces that he will become a fish, so she tells him she will become a fisherman.  We all know fishermen use nasty hooks to catch their fish.  Out of desperation he says he will sail away from her, and she says she will be the wind and tell him where to go. He finally gives in and says there is no point in trying, so she gives him a carrot.

Message: No matter what you do or how hard you try, you will always be a mama\’s boy. Good luck finding a wife, kid.

  • Dan Sampson

    I love this article! Really funny, well done. If you want some other creepy kids books, check out Roald Dahl…’The Twits’ is chilling…

    • Karen Barnhart

      Glad you liked it! You are not kidding about Roald Dahl. I will be reading ‘The Twits’ this weekend (thanks for the suggestion). Based on his other books, I must assume the poor man had a disturbing childhood.

  • -Sin

    I must respectfully disagree with your assement of two of these books, since as I read them as a child and took away far different message that remain with me to this day.

    Where the Wild Things Are: What I took away from this tale: wildness and ferocity were traits we should never give up, but never forget the warmth of home, hearth and the love that a family/community brings to one’s life.

    The Lesson: Wild/Bad/Darkness is fun, but without the balance of Order/Good/Light in the end it is hollow and empty. Contrawise applies of course…both are needed for the human experience. Revel & promote the wild; Protect & foster the order.

    The Giving Tree:

    I will admit that this tale had a deep influence on me as a child. Even then I thought, “What a selfish snot” he boy was, to keep taking and taking from the tree, until in the end he sits apon the severed stump of the tree, so that even in death she gives succor unto the sot.

    The Lesson: That which supports us all (unnamed in the tale but later know as Gaia in popularlar parlance) will give and give and give to satisfy our own desires, even unto death. To take and take and take is stupid beyond understanding, yet so many of our kind do so without thinking. Do NOT be like the boy in this tale, but rather consider the impact of WHAT you take and what it will mean to those around you and your/their children.

    • Karen Barnhart


      Although this was written as a humorous piece, I really appreciate the lessons you came away with concerning both stories. Books can definitely change our perspective, and that makes them priceless. Thank you for sharing.

      • -Sin


        OK, your sense of humor is obviusly too sophisticated for my plebeian tastes. I shall beat my head against the ground in penance… :)


        (Mommy Kangaroo, naked in the tub… “And what does this make you think of, Joey?).

        It strikes me that that you may be reading too much (excuse the “pun”) into that. No longer a child I am, rember how I thought as such I do recall; and such inuendo was beyond myself and my fellows. A Kangaroo in a hot tub is on the same order as a Moose on a bicycle to a child’s mind; blatenty ridiculous (sp) and so worthy of laughter at its absurdity.

        • Karen Barnhart

          True enough, Sin. I agree that kids do not see what adults see when they read their favorite tales.

  • Martha Slater

    Dear Karen,

    Ahhh – the satisfaction of finding a kindred spirit! The Giving Tree gave me the weirdo vibes from my first reading, but nothing compares to the first time I read The Runaway Bunny… I continue to feel like this illustrator probably also created various creepy illustrations for Rorshach-like, Jungian-based psychoanalytical tests for young children (Mommy Kangaroo, naked in the tub… “And what does this make you think of, Joey?). I have three girls, so I routinely changed the gender of male main characters when they were small; turning the Runaway Bunny into a girl makes it seem like a totally different story. I did always read “Where the Wild Things Are” as a kiddo who got sent to his room, had a kind of scary not-all-the-way-asleep dream and woke up finding out that – thankfully – the grownup anger went away faster than his anxiety and the loving arms were there for him after all. I guess that’s the message of the Runaway Bunny too, ultimately… but I bet Max grew up and scored some cute girlfriends!

    • Karen Barnhart

      I bet you are right, Max has a much better chance of scoring the girls. Girls love a naughty boy…

  • Ally

    I think Sin is taking this whole thing entirely too seriously. It’s an entertaining piece on how you CAN find warped morals in books if you interpret them with an adult mind.

    Although I will say, Karen, that I believe I was in 3rd grade when I had to read Love You Forever and it has ALWAYS creeped me out, from the weird illustration style down to the fact that the mother was creeping into her son’s room to rock him at all ages. That’s just messed up haha!

    Well done on the article, that was awesome.

    • Karen Barnhart

      Ally, just wanted you to know I appreciated your take on things. The fact you found it amusing pleases me greatly.

  • tootie bug

    well i think that all of the books were a little disturbing except love you forever. i have read that book ever sience i was 1. my mom loves this book but i do think of my own interpritations like mabey the mom felt lonley when he moved out or maby im just used to seeing my mom cuddle with my little brother but a mom always wants their child to be safe or to show them how they love them but they cant hug them when they are awake but the story i personaly think that the message is that no matter how old you get your mom will always love you.

    • Karen Barnhart

      Thanks for the comment Tootie Bug. A mom’s love is forever, I will grant you that.

  • Angela

    How about The Cat in the Hat. Creepy character invades the kids’ home, bullies them and their fish, brings his wild friends, and together they trash the place. Then closes with the conundrum of whether they should tell their mom.

    • Karen Barnhart

      Love it!

  • Louzeyre

    Madeline always creeped me out. When I was little, because it was about a little girl that got appendicitis (for years I always got a little worried every time I had a stomachache). Later because her father didn’t even visit her in the hospital and the rest of the girls were so desperate for attention (and toys) they wanted an appendicitis.

    • Karen Barnhart

      This article is a gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for sharing your Madeline experience. You are completely right, what was up with her dad?

  • http://www.whitetrashart.com White Trash Peg

    My ex mother in law bought my then (35 year old) husband “Love You Forever” for Christmas one year, confirming the blatant levels of dysfunction in their relationship with schmaltzy mawkish watercolor drawings.

    • Karen Barnhart

      I can only shake my head in wonder…

  • Cheryl W.

    Wow, no cool words here. Plain and simple, The Giving Tree, makes me cry everytime. Would it have killed the boy to say thank you or appreciate what the tree was giving him? I love reading to my daughter, but I don’t have the heart to read her any of these.

    • Karen Barnhart


      I understand about the Giving Tree. When I read it, I actually get angry at the boy. Show just a shred of gratefulness towards the tree, PLEASE!

  • Ethan B.

    Interesting blog. I have trouble thinking of The Giving Tree as creepy, though. Although it made me sad the first time I read it as a kid (or had it read to me), I think it is a beautiful story of how roles change in any relationship as time passes. I do not look at the tree as dead in the end but rather there with the boy and they are able to have a relationship that still meets each others needs. To me there is a very Zen quality about this book, aging, and the natural progression of life stages.

    If you want to talk creepy mesages that we give to our kids, what about nursery rhymes and other stories read or told as an oral tradition? I always looked for meaning in these stories. Looking back, some of the messages were so disturbing that I really wonder why we tell them at all

    Jack and the Beanstalk (A giant that eats (English) children…”Grind your bones to make my bread…”)

    Alice in Wonderland (a psychodelic nightmarish story)

    Rockabye Baby (a lullabye… “…the cradle will fall and down will come baby”- that sounds comforting. What exactly is this trying to communicate to the kid? Don’t trust the person who is supposed to protect and care for you?)

    Red Riding Hood (A little girl goes to grandma’s house and doesn’t she get eaten by the wolf at the end? That’s a good message. Don’t trust that you can have your defenses down at grandma’s house because YOU MIGHT GET EATEN WHILE YOU ARE THERE)!!!!

    Hansel & Gretel (child imprisonment until they are fat enough to be eaten by the witch. This sounds more like a horror story than a fairy tale)

    And on and on…

    Why do we tell these stories to our kids? What are they supposed to teach them? Are they supposed to make them feel good?

    I know that these are tradition (they were when I was a kid- I am now 45). But in this PC world, and a world where we think about how things affect each other (even sometimes psychologically), can’t we pick better folklore with better messages that will support, comfort and build up a kid in a positive way?

    Drama is good, horror is not.

    I would love to hear other’s thoughts about this.

  • Carolyn Allen

    I love children’s books! (I’m a retired pre-k teacher, and great-grandmother.) I like The Giving Tree, but agree that Love You Forever gave me the creeps. Where the Wild Things Are never was one I wanted to share with my students. I’d like to recommend Mark Ludy’s The Flower Man, and Jujo. They have good messages and wonderful illustrations!

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/GWP5W4MTI5IFCZKTR4TUFWABXY Enemy of Mediocrity

    Yeah, I see your point; those books do belong in what I call the “rewarding bad behavior”  children’s book category, as promoted by Mr. Sendak, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and other authors. The thinking behind such books seems to be that providing a moral or advocating good deeds is decidedly un-hip, and that it’s more progressive to appeal to children’s baser instincts and tell them such instincts are perfectly fine and in no need of alteration. (sigh). As for the Rainbow Fish book, its plot is distressingly reminiscent of the credo practiced by network censors of ’80’s and ’90’s children’s television; reportedly, according to that credo, in any given group of characters, any individualist must be suppressed and forced to become part of the group. Heaven forbid he stand against a group decision. The show “The Get-Along Gang” was probably the worst practitioner of that credo, if not the spawn of it. Thank heavens the children’s television scene has changed with the advent of cable, where no one body of “experts” controls what children see. But that’s the good news; unfortunately, while those dreadful ’80’s and ’90’s shows have fallen by the wayside, books with similar oppressive tones are sadly still in print.

    As for The Giving Tree…I’ve never been quite sure as to its point. Is it a warning to those who give without recompense, as many women are asked to do for the sake of their marriages and families? Just a thought…


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