Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Traumatic children's books

As a child, I was a regular omnivore for books with pictures, and my parents willingly obliged.  Instead of a Tooth Fairy replacing my molars with money, I found books underneath my pillow.  But since there were so few interesting Comic Paperbacks, let alone Newspaper comic collections, finding new material was always a challenge.  Scary Poems For Rotten Kids by Sean O'Huigin was the only Hanukkah gift I ever got that severely disagreed with me.

First off, I was so distressed by the fact that they thought I was a lousy kid that they felt they needed it told to me in the title alone.  And the interior art and poems were more disturbing than funny to me.  Maybe it would've appealed to rowdy children who were in to the joke, but to someone of my sensitivity, it was an obvious mismatch.  My parents were generally good judges of finding books that appealed to my tastes, but not this time.

Other books that had me recoiling away from the page came from the library.  One of these was A Monster Is Coming! A Monster Is Coming!  by Florence Parry Heide, whose works of deadpan observation, best represented by The Treehorn trilogy, as illustrated by Edward Gorey.

It was a fairly typical edutainment book, where the boy would notice a monster gradually coming inside their house via the window, naming each body part that showed up while his sister replied, "Don't bother me, I'm watching TV."  I was perfectly fine up to the first three body parts (hair, eyes, nose) but was weirded out by the monster's teeth, which were wider than they had every right to be.  And that same rictus grin was present for every new frightening part shown, while the sister remained blissfully oblivious to the growing threat behind her, her last words being "DON'T BOTHER ME, I'M WATCHING TV."

There was another short early reader book that had a man passing by random men in sunglasses & trenchcoats at night, and becoming progressively scared as each person smiled unwaveringly bigger smiles, larger than the last man he passed.  One of these unnerving smiles came from a DOG for some reason.

I'm really sorry I don't have any available pictures - it loses something in the retelling.  The closest comparison I can give is that they made the Joker's grin look normal.
And that's counting Tim Sale's Joker.
Dinosaurs are generally accepted as being one of the most attractive merchandising bonanzas for children, regardless of gender or age.  They're basically hulking monstrosities that actually existed, and may have inspired countless stories from various civilizations trying to explain their bones via myths and legends.

They're so widely accepted nowadays that it's easy to forget that despite their merchandising nature, they were still brutal animals, and capable of violent acts.  One children's book (possibly The Mysterious World of Dinosaurs) had realistic drawings of of said extinct creatures, but had dripping blood falling from their encounters with predatory carnivores.  The wounds were probably superficial scratches, but it was still a jarring experience to come to terms with.  Somewhat like having all your experience of combat via war movies, and encountering the real thing, and succumbing to PSTD yourself.

Even Children's classics aren't immune to traumatizing children.  Maurice Sendak was told that some readers of his most honest audience shied away from the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are, and said that "Not all children are alike", or words to that effect.  In that same vein, I was deeply disturbed by Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant by Gavin Bishop.

Mrs McGinty is a pinch-faced woman who's relentlessly teased by the neighbor kids.  On a typical day, she randomly chooses an ordinary-looking plant for sale.  The next day, it's clearly outgrown the flowerpot, and is transferred to the garden, where it grows even larger.  While the opening act gave the premise that this plant would serve as a kind of justified revenge for being persecuted, the neighbors start revering Mrs. McGinty for her awe-inspiring plant instead.  What disturbed me apart from the Lovecraftian plant of gargantuan design towering over the houses and people was how everybody seemed perfectly fine rather than horrified at this force of nature.  The cover had what looked like spiky leaves, and the base was an off-putting purpleish colour.  How could they not be repelled by this force of nature that dispelled nothing but sheer wrongness from its being?

The plant is later picked up by a team of botanists who want to examine it for themselves, and is ferried away via helicopters.  Afterwards, Mrs. McGinty is on better terms with her neighbors, and there's an epilogue at the end of a hint that the whole nightmare scenario would happen again.

One of the reasons I studied library science was so I might be able to find certain children's books that affected me as a child.  The other being that I'd be able to look up certain books without having to attract wary attention.  However, despite my best efforts, my attempts at finding certain children's books has turned up naught, save for smatterings of memories here and there.  The Bath is one of them - do you have any idea how many children's books about taking baths there are???  The Bath started out fairly innocuously.  A boy with his animated rubber duckie was told by his mother not to turn the faucet.  Typically, the boy rebelled almost immediately, being tempted while staring at the face-like features of the bathtub features.  The boy turned the handle, but nothing came out.  The boy kept turning, and turning (even the rubber duckie helped) and still nothing came out.  Then...

A creature crawled out of the faucet.  A smiling blue Muppet-like creature.  In the descriptive rhyming stanza, It had wings, it had fins; it could dance, it could sing.  The creature then made a proclamation of having nothing less than what would amount to an enjoyable experience.  And although the boy had been frightened at first, it accepted its claim to splashing, diving under the water and having fun.

Soon, more creatures came pouring out of the faucet along with the notably absent water.  These ranged from "The humpy one, the lumpy one, and one covered with weasels."  While most of them were accommodating at first, later creatures took on a more menacing and threatening nature, and the dimensions of the bathtub had swelled to oceanic proportions.  The bathroom walls had disappeared somewhere in the horizon, and there were monsters that splashed water hard, and set the water on fire somehow.  All the while, there were prophetic warnings of "Two Minutes More" to "ONE MINUTE MORE" before the boy's mother came back to see the awful mess he'd made.  And still, creatures were pouring out, to which the first one asked, "Why did you turn that faucet?"

Somehow amidst the rocking tidal waves, the rubber duckie found the singular weak point by simply pulling the plug.  At which point, all the creatures started spiraling down the drain in rapid fashion (including the flying ones) just in time before the boy's mother came far enough through the door to catch him disobeying her.  (The first creature had to be pushed down, since he was resisting sharing the other's fate)  While other children's books had touted the power of imagination, this book showed how our imaginations can go awry with us, going down dark paths we never even considered in the first place.

Another title I'm unsure of (#? Minutes to / till Midnight) is something that was designed like a Golden Book, but with war as the topic, told almost via buildings and a notable an absence of people.  The only person I remember was a boy pointing towards a plane while shouting a warning.  It sounds like a badly-made photoshop designed to shock, but I swear I saw this in a doctor's office while waiting for my appointment.  All throughout the narrative, there was a countdown to what would amount to a bombing attack, though no explosions were ever shown.  The last image was Big Ben underneath a black sky with the last sentence being "death had come", or words to that effect.  Pretty heavy stuff for a first reader experience.  I've never been able to find anything resembling it since.

1 comment:

  1. THE BATH! I just found your post while aimlessly searching for the same book. Did you ever discover the author? Earlier today I finally found the Uborne Time Traveler book I've been pining for since childhood and this one is next on my list.