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In Praise of Odd Children's Books


When I was in fifth grade, my mom read me a chapter a night of a strange and wonderful children's book by Richard Kennedy called Amy's Eyes. It had been a few years since the last time we shared nighttime reading, and I wondered if maybe I was too old for that kind of thing. I was quickly won over by this book which was more complex and seemingly adult.

It was intricate and intriguing, made us both cry, and the switchback plot twists gave us something really interesting to talk about together. We loved it. It's only now when I try to describe it to parents in the children's room that I realize quite how odd the plot sounds. It's not unusual for a story to involve dolls coming to life, but it's not often you find living rags obsessed with biblical numerology.

I've apparently kept a soft spot for the kind of children's fiction that is a little eyebrow-raising—maybe more intense or more philosophically bent or surreallist than you expect to find in the kids' room. Sometimes these books are really truly odd, but they can also be exquisitely written or beautifully drawn or just off-kilter in a very refreshing way amid all the cute bunnies and "just be yourself" morals. I'm reminded of this every year I'm on the children's book committee and we get one of those books in that makes us go "wow" though we're not sure where to put it.

And of course they're not all completely successful (some are, some not quite), but they're definitely different. So, in the traditional librarian's mission of connecting every book to its reader and every reader to their book, here's a small collection of unusual, deep, existential, or really weird books, in the hope that somewhere out there is the reader who would appreciate that kind of thing.

Amy's Eyes
Richard Kennedy
The one that started me off. A grand sea voyage, mysterious characters of surprising intent, unrequited love, singing frogs, biblical numerology and a character named Scurvy. (You can still read the original New York Times review.)






Mouse Bird Snake Wolf
David Almond
An exquisitely written horror parable about what trouble humans can get into when left to their own imaginings. Amazingly conceived and sometimes odd illustrations that deftly portray the intangible. Also featuring a few lazy, self-satisfied, half-naked supreme beings.





House of Dolls
Francesca Lia Block
Notable for sudden wrenching sentences, honest portrayals of the deep, mean bitterness of a sad little girl, and the transformative power of both losing and gaining love. While the writing is at times stunning, it is intense, with sentences like : "war is being blinded and locked in a box, unable to see, hear, or touch you... being reminded that you are completely at the mercy of death at every moment" and "The main thing she had tried to forget rocked back and forth like the empty cradle in the nursery."



The Book of Everything
Guus Kuijer
The diary of an unusual boy facing serious hardships, seeing things (such as the plagues) that no one else can see, and wanting to be happy.






The Only Ones
Aaron Starmer
Honestly not all that weird, just really an exceedingly cool science fiction mystery with a new take on certain paradoxes. I'm still getting over it not making our list two years ago.







Manneken Pis
Vladimir Radunsky
Yes, he's peeing. That's how a young boy saves the town from fighting factions. A retold legend.






The Mighty Asparagus
Vladimir Radunsky
Wacky pictures tell of an asparagus that does not want to move, and the king who really really wants it to.






Mimi's Dada Catifesto
Shelley Jackson
Huge heaping handfulls of something surreal and notable and I guess Dadaist. Mimi the creative cat finds her place as a devotee of the famous random artist. Salami!





Meet at the Ark at Eight
Ulrich Hub
Three penguins bat around the nature of God, good and evil, and forgiveness on the Antarctic ice and then in the belly of Noah's Ark, where they must hide the smuggled-in third penguin from the overworked overseer Dove.






The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip 
George Saunders
By the celebrated author of many New Yorker stories, a great, funny tale of the triumph of communism and common sense, at least when it comes to protecting goats from small screechy things, selfish silly neighbors, and handling a dad who only eats food painted white. Illustrations by the always marvelous Lane Smith.






The Swan's Child
Sjoerd Kuyper
A baby appears on the back of a swan in a small harbor town and is raised through grief and joy by the kind animals who live there.


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Odd Children's Books

One of my favorite oddities is Chris Raschka's Arlene Sardine.

Yes that's a nice one, thanks

Yes that's a nice one, thanks Ed!

The Sheer Magic Of It All!

There is something special about old children's books, which I peruse lovingly, at specialty stores. My niece recently sent me some volumes of the "My Book House" series, which were handed down to me from my sister, then t her daughter, now back to me. One of my favorite volumes. was "Through Fairy Halls." I curl up with it on cold, Winter nights.

Little Annie's Ramble by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’d like to preface this post by acknowledging that, while many of the children’s books written about on this blog were published in the current century (with the exception of Amy’s Eyes and Mouse Bird Snake Wolf), a story I would consider to be particularly praiseworthy is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1830’s short story, Little Annie’s Ramble. Because Little Annie’s Ramble is able to capture children’s interest and parents’ interest in such disparate ways, and may make contrasting impressions upon the two, it qualifies as an odd, but well-crafted and enjoyable children’s book. An unlikely choice to be sure – Hawthorne is not generally associated with lighthearted children’s stories, and has a reputation that leans more towards bleak morbidity than levity and cheer. This isn’t entirely surprising, since his most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, discusses a woman that was shunned from Puritan society and forced to raise her bastard child on the outskirts of society. But, Little Annie’s Ramble is entirely different. I consider it on two separate levels of understanding – the children’s level of cognizance and the parents’ level. To begin with the children’s level of understanding, Little Annie’s Ramble is a reflection upon the joy and innocence of childhood. It is a brief story about a curious young girl. The tale is sure to pique children’s interest because it constantly relates back to the senses. Especially when it is being read aloud, children are aware of the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and feelings described. For instance, Hawthorne chooses to start out with “DING-DONG! Ding-dong! Ding-dong!,” the sound of a bell. “…An elephant, and a lion, and a royal tiger, and a horse with horns, and other strange beasts from foreign countries, have come to town,” the town crier announces (1). The child reader can almost hear the crier shouting about the animals in the town center and see the exotic creatures parading around. Little Annie heads out on a walk with the narrator to the town center. They pass by the confectioner’s, and the description of the sweets in the window would make even the pickiest child’s mouth water: “…those pies, with such white and flaky paste, their contents being a mystery, whether rich mince, with whole plums intermixed, or piquant apple, delicately rose-flavored; those cakes, heart-shaped or round, piled in a lofty pyramid; those sweet little circlets, sweetly named kisses; those dark majestic masses, fit to be bridal loaves at the wedding of an heiress, mountains in size, their summits deeply snow-covered with sugar” (2). The music of the organ-grinder catches Annie’s attention, too. Her “…feet begin to move in unison with the lively tune,” indicating her enjoyment (2). Consider reading this to your child at night, while you are tucking her into her bed. The thought of music might cause her to bounce her feet or hum a little tune, just as the thought of the exotic animals or the sugary pastries might excite her. On the other hand, think about this tale from your own point of view as a parent. As a mother or a father, part of the story should be seen as a learning lesson for children; Annie wanders off with this strange man, whom she presumably knows. As a parent, this would make me extraordinarily nervous to hear. We don’t understand until the end that Annie’s family is unaware of her companion. “Strayed from her home, a LITTLE GIRL, of five years old, in a blue frock and white pantalettes, with brown curling hair and hazel eyes. Whoever will bring her back to her afflicted mother—” says the town crier on the last page of the short story. It is then that we realize (with parental concern) that the narrator had not informed Annie’s mother of their walk. Take this as a moment through which you can teach your children the perils of walking off with a stranger. Although Hawthorne’s short story indicates that Annie enjoyed her walk and was not in any danger, the 1830’s were very different than 2013 is; the outcome of the story could have been drastically different today. Little Annie’s Ramble gives us such an innocent notion of childhood bravery. While the pair walks to the town center, they turn the corner and confront a busy street full of horses and carriages and trucks and carts. “Is not little Annie afraid of such a tumult? No; she does not even shrink closer to my side, but passes on with fearless confidence,” says the narrator (1). This is a perfect example of childish unawareness. Most young children have no ability to comprehend danger. As a result, they usually do not react to crowds by clutching their parents’ hands or panicking. Hawthorne does a wonderful job of displaying childlike behaviors in this piece – as such, it is important to use these examples of certain behaviors as teaching moments, and talk with our children about the appropriate ways to behave in certain (potentially dangerous) situations. Although it is easy to pass over these teaching opportunities by looking at Little Annie’s Ramble as a simple, old-fashioned children’s short story, recognize the wisdom behind the text. Even though your children may only enjoy this odd story for its lively imagery and storyline, use Little Annie’s Ramble as an entrance to talking to them about real-life scenarios they may encounter.

Cool post. I definitely want

Cool post. I definitely want to read the one about the smuggled-in third penguin.

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