OPINION: Children’s books are messed up, and it’s a good thing

A little girl looks up to a mythical princess with antlers, along with her chicken, cat, and dragon friends in a storybook.
(Gabi Seifert • The Student Life)

There is a strange phenomenon occurring among toddlers — bizarre picture books keep getting published, then adults read them to their children, and the kids like them. Think back to some of the picture books we read as children, and about the utter strangeness that those books included. 

And I’m not just talking about the assortments of talking animals, magic and large food items rolling around. Think about all the people eaten, all the gaps in storylines and the dark desires of main characters, usually toddlers themselves.

The long-standing history of twisted children’s books goes all the way back to “Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” While Disney has altered all these stories — “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel” and more — into sugar-coated, corporate money makers, it’s easy to see through their efforts.

These dark stories were created to give children outlets. Kids are weird and they’re all going through a weird time of self-awareness and self-exploration. They have thoughts about death, isolation, hating their parents, getting lost and becoming powerful — all usually in obscure circumstances. Picture books and fairy tales are for children to relate to, to feel accepted and normal.

That being said, how the fuck do these books get published? Imagine meeting with a publisher and proposing that there needs to be a story about a little girl who randomly gets stripes all over her body, but then gets cured by eating lima beans. And then the publisher says, “Yes, we need that book.” Absurd. 

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I wonder about the people who decide to fast-track these stories. Some part of me is heavily convinced they’re playing a joke on us and seeing just how much they can disguise as beneficial to children’s development. Half of these books include some variation of the Oedipus complex; it’s truly remarkable that in such a censored society we still read our babies these books! 

So I decided to Google how children’s books get published, and to answer my so eloquently phrased question two paragraphs above, it’s way too easy. I found a variety of sites willing to let you self-publish children’s books and even more articles with advice like “find an editor,” “hire an illustrator,” and my personal favorite: “write the story.” All pretty obvious, and therefore, useless nuggets of wisdom. 

Some more enlightening research took place when I talked to my mom and sister about the books we read when I was a kid. I realized those books have different meanings than the ones I was aware of at the time.

Obviously there were deeper meanings — but I was a child and didn’t realize it was weird to swallow a fly and become a donkey and then kill your father, the sun. I just took the stories for what they were and enjoyed the illustrations. 

As I’ve revisited these books this week, I’ve realized that the beauty in them lies in the imagination they evoke. The argument that they make children feel comfortable to have weird dark thoughts is important, but what’s more important is their ability to let kids run with those concepts, free of shame.

When you sit your kid down at the table with an iPad, propped up by two iPhones, and slap tiny little baby Beats headphones over their ears so they can’t hear your conversation about getting a vasectomy, you’re brutally depriving them of the chance to grow. Next time, give them a book.  

The comfortable, accepting world of children’s books is just the precursor to true growth. It’s what kids are able to do with their imagination, spurred by these stories, that deserves the credit for their value.

Georgia Scott PZ ’23 is from Marin County, California. Her favorite children’s book is “10 Minutes till Bedtime.” Find the tiny beach ball on each page.

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