In Praise of Odd Children's Books

  • by Jill Rothstein

    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.