Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Winged monkeys and gingerbread fingers: creepy images from kid lit

I guess we're not so mysterious after all. Ten of you guessed the shoes. Hank pointy-toed heels, me sneaker/Mary Janes, Rhys, beige walking shoes, Lucy brown lace-up sneakers. I entered your names in a random number generator (really!) and the winner is, ta dah: Grandma Cootie! So GC email me and we'll talk about your prize and how to get it to you (email me: hallie "at" hallieephron dot com.)

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently came across a recipe for gingerbread cookies (I LOVE thin crisp gingerbread cookies with lemon icing) and the picture showed  cookies that were hand-shaped. (Thanks for the picture, Pam Novotny!)

Back came a memory from one of the Mary Poppins books: Mary Poppins takes the children went into a sweet shop. The old Old OLD woman shopkeeper, Mrs. Cory, snaps off a few of her own fingers and gives them to the kids to eat. Turns out her fingers are made of gingerbread.

Repeat after me: Ewwwwww.
Needless to say that image has stuck with me, and inspires me today to ask: What are the slightly offy, somewhat icky or slightly scary images that have stuck with you from your favorite children's books? 

LUCY BURDETTE: All you had to do was read a Grimm Brothers story to be scared to DEATH! But more closely related to your
memory Hallie, how about the Wizard of OZ, when Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, who then melts into a green puddle. And that's a good thing, but isn't the image terrifying?

HALLIE: Lucy, you sent me scurrying back to find that passage in the book... it comes about 2/3 of the way through, and then Dorothy et. al. have a whole bunch of adventures getting back to Glinda (left out of the movie, fortunately.) And in the book it's silver, not ruby slippers, and the puddle is only green in the movie:

 "Well, in a few minutes I shall be all melted, and you will have the castle to yourself. I have been wicked in my day, but I never thought a little girl like you would ever be able to melt me and end my wicked deeds. Look out--here I go!"

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again. Then, being at last free to do as she chose, she ran out to the courtyard to tell the Lion that the Wicked Witch of the West had come to an end, and that they were no longer prisoners in a strange land.
RHYS BOWEN: So many books were scary to an imaginative child. Hansel and Gretel about to be baked in the oven so they shove the old witch in intead? 

What was that German one called StrubelPeter? Remember his fingernails grew so long, and another child ate until he burst and a small girl caught on fire. Yuck.

But the book I found worrisome was The Water Babies. It was obvious to me, even as a kid, that those people all drowned. And that Tom was treated unfairly because he was low class and had no one to stick up for him. And Ellie conveniently falls into a tide pool and hits her head so she can continue in the story. Really a book about heaven and hell, I suppose.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, Dorothy's tornado. For gosh sake. When I was a kid, I would lie in the wayback of my parents station wagon and watch for them, I was so afraid.  I was the self-appointed and secret tornado scout--I didn't
tell anyone in the family I was doing it, because I didn't want them to be scared.  I guess I'm another Wizard of Oz victim.

I was also pretty haunted by the Hansel and Gretel witches oven, too.  I really thought about it. And wouldn't it HURT Rapunzel if someone climbed up her hair? On the other hand, Little Red RH would never have believed the wolf was her grandmother. I mean--come on.

(Rhys, I tried to read Water Babies, and I was completely baffled. And The Little Princess? No. No way. Way too sad.)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I was a great lover of fairy and folk tales as a child - I read all the "Coloured" Fairy Tale Books by
Andrew Lang - but I still remember getting my hands on one of those original version story books and being horrified by the foot torture in Cinderella and Snow White

In the former, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off their own toes and/or heels in order to "fit" the glass slipper. In the latter, the Evil Queen is condemned to dance at her step-daughter's wedding in red-hot iron shoes welded to her feet.

The version I read had a description of how she crawled away to die in the snow...can you imagine putting that in the hands of a child? It still creeps me the hell out.

(By the way, the much under-appreciated miniseries THE TENTH KINGDOM uses that original story to great effect in it's back story about the present-day Evil Queen.)

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Julia, I read all the Andrew Lang color fairytale books, too! And also loved the miniseries THE TENTH
KINGDOM! And yes, those original Grimm are bloody and violent....

I also remember reading Madeleine L'Engle's WRINKLE IN TIME and being truly frightened by IT [sic — name of the Big Bad] as well as Robert C. O'Brien's THE SILVER CROWN. That one haunted me for years and I'm currently rereading it with Kiddo.

Oh Lordy, I also remember seeing the uncut version of the film THE EXORCIST on HBO as a young kid — maybe 9 or 10? Messed me up FOR YEARS AND YEARS. Seriously scary stuff.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I thought all the Grimm and Anderson stories were creepy. Those guys were warped, really! But the thing that gave me nightmares from The Wizard of Oz was the evil,
flying, singing monkeys. Ick. Makes me shudder just to think of them. 

But the story that most creeped me out wasn't a children's book, it was being taught about Noah's Arc in Sunday school. I thought it was horrible, absolutely unthinkable, that God would drown everyone in the world except for Noah. I've never had a Noah's Arc set, even as a child, and I wouldn't see the recent movie. Scarred for life!

HALLIE: So, gentle and not-so gentle readers, share the images from kiddie lit that creep you out... still.


  1. I'm with you on the creepy Grimm's Fairy Tales and the flying winged monkeys.
    My most vivid memory is a story whose title and author I don't remember. My grandmother had a hardcover set of storybooks I always enjoyed reading when we visited her; one story was a gruesome science fiction piece about astronauts on Mars that can still creep me out just thinking about it.
    "Invaders From Mars" is similarly creepy . . . I could never watch that movie without cringing even though I really like science fiction.

  2. All of those! It was also the illustrations, those detailed and dark pictures, that were scary.

  3. what about Bluebeard? wasn't he the one with all the heads in the secret room? shudder...

  4. Agree, Edith - we owe a debt of gratitude to the great children's books illustrators like Arthur Rackham and W. W. Denslow (original W of Oz illustrator) and my favorite who often verged over into creepy, Gustaf Tenggren (what is it about those Swedes and creepy?) who also illustrated Snow White for Disney without the pervasive creep factor. (See two of his great ghouls at

  5. YOu know, it's funny--I got a book for my grandson Eli called The Other Felix. It's a terrific book, about a boy who dreams about another of himself..and has all kinds of adventures. I worried it was too scary for 9 year old Eli--but he LOVED it.

    So hard for adults to gauge how kids react..though from our horror stories, they might have asked.

    But would the answer have been: It's just a story? HA!

    OH! Our next door neighbor read The Giving Tree (which, sorry, I hate) when she was pretty young. She cried for DAYS. Days! ANd you couldn't say the word "Tree" around her. She'd freak out again.

  6. I lucked out, probably, by not seeing any of the original Grimms' illustrations--can't think of a children's book that creeped me out.
    it was the movies that did it for me. My oldest brother (7 years older than me), was allowed to stay up on Friday night to watch the campy horror movies. Once I hid behind his armchair, where my mom wouldn't see me, and peeked around--no horror movies for me--not ever--terrified especially of the vampire movies! (Except George Hamilton's version!)

  7. Good morning. I want to add to the conversation on the stories of the Grimmm brothers. These tales were collected by the brothers Grimmm and not written by them. Many of these stories stem from ancient societies and even could have been based on the Greek and Roman gods!

  8. All of those classic fairy tales were pretty grim, if you ask me (no pun intended). Everybody harps on Disney for cleaning them up, but seriously - would anybody have watched movies that were 100% accurate to the stories with small children?

    The Little Mermaid is another. She gives up her voice to become human, yes, but it also feels like she's walking on knives. And when the prince doesn't fall in love with her, it's either kill him or die herself. So she chooses to become the wind. Not visually scary, but man -- it would be a completely different movie, wouldn't it?

  9. The winged monkeys, both in the book and the movie. Terrifying.

    Sunday I took the train home from Malice so I would have time to write. The last leg of that trip is a bus ride from Boston to Portland. This bus features a movie (high end, don't you know?) and that night's selection was Wizard of Oz. I worked most of the way, but allowed myself a little down time at the end to lean back and watch Judy Garland, forgetting all about the flying monkeys. So creepy.

  10. Now I'll probably have nightmares tonight, just so you all know. ;-)

    When I was about Eli's age there was a TV version of one of Rudyard Kipling's books, wherein a little boy who likes to read (we can all identify, right?) sucks on a painted metal figure for fun (boys are weird), and goes blind from the paint in the arsenic. That haunted me, for years. Any story, really, with poisons fascinated me, though, including Snow White, who ate the poisoned apple, and Sleeping Beauty, who was given a sleep-forever potion by pricking her finger on the spindle.

    And have any of you read Baba Yaga? She was one creepy witch, with that house that could walk around on chicken legs.

  11. That was meant to say "arsenic in the paint".

    But you all knew that. :-)

  12. Good point, Carol Friedman.

    FChurch, your brother owes you. And I agree George Hamilton was a pretty delicious Dracula. I saw Frank Langella do it on Broadway, and he was amazing, sexy/scary which is the essence of the character.

  13. Karen, now that's going to haunt me, too. Especially these days with toys made who knows where and that's what kids do, put them right in the mouth.

    Hank, how did I miss The Giving Tree - it must have been after my kids were reading kids books. I'm a huge fan of Shel Silverstein. The Runaway Bunny is pretty sad. Ditto Bridge to Terabithia.

    But I should have said, the prize for wonderful/gruesome has got to go to Roald Dahl (The Witches!)

  14. My grandmother made sure we had all the children's classics. I guess there was supposed to be some symbolism or message in the fairy tales, but I never got it. They were creepy but I liked them (probably said something about the later Stephen King obsession, right?). Black Beauty bothered me more - they did what to those horses?? Or anything where the children were locked up or lost. My sister and I always worried about being lost.

  15. Oh yes... The giving tree. So sad and made me angry. And the Silver Crown was terrifying.

  16. Rhys, so glad you read The Silver Crown, too! Did you know that while it was originally set in England, there's another version of the book (the one we're reading now, actually) set in the States, in the South East? It just isn't working for me... I wonder why they changed the setting?

  17. "The Little Match Girl" by HCAndersen is hands-down the most horrible. She stands out in the cold, lighting matches to see her dead grandmother in visions until she's burned out all the matches she's supposed to be selling and then freezes to death on the street corner! Horrifying!

  18. The Classics Illustrated Jr. edition of Beauty and the Beast. I was scared %$#*less of the picture of the Beast when he first appears, grabbing the merchant by the lapels for daring to pick a rose from his garden. I taped the pages shut so I wouldn't accidently see the picture when reading it.

    (Years later I finally looked at the pic again. Not the least bit scary.)

    The Little Mermaid, as Mary mentioned. In the version I watched on TV (1960?), in my memory, she was turned into "white foam of the sea." Very unsettling.

  19. Oh, right, the LIttle Match Girl. HORRIBLE.

    And he went blind from the arsenic in the paint, Karen?? Amazing..wish I could unhear that. :-)

    What were they thinking???

    And back to the Giving Tree. Yeah. WHY is that supposed to be inspirational? It's AWFUL.

  20. I hate hate hate hate hate HATE Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Every bit of it. Will not watch any version of it. Ever.

    Otherwise, I was pretty ok with kid stuff. :)

  21. I went on a fairy tale binge as a kid. Yeeesh. So depressing. Anderson has to be the worst. Did anything good happen to any of the characters? So much death and misery in those books. And I was a sensitive kid! I am not a Wizard of Oz fan either. It really disturbed me when I was a kid. Poor Dorothy just wanted to go home and couldn't. I still don't watch that movie. Thanks for the heads up on the Giving Tree. I will be sure to never read it! As a child I loved Fess Parker in everything. I saw Old Yeller once and could never watch it again. Too sad. My big brother and I loved monster movies so we indulged in those.

  22. Andersen? He wrote The Ugly Duckling, didn't he? And Princess and the Pea. (In the story the happy couple put the pea in the royal museum!) So I forgive him The Little Match girl.

  23. How about The Fir Tree (gets cut down and burned for firewood). Or the Brave Tin Soldier? Unrequited love. Gets tossed into the fire and melts into the shape of a heart. Ooooh. Depressing.

  24. More on The Little Mermaid.

    Okay, I just went and actually READ the ending. She refuses to kill the prince and thus becomes sea foam, but only briefly. Then she becomes a creature of the air, which is all about redemption, so it is a happy ending. And all these years since I saw it on TV, I thought it was supposed to be tragic.

  25. Agreed -- the Grimm tales were terrifying, but the Andersen ones were heartbreaking.

  26. Somehow I got hold of the Cinderella version of where the stepsisters cut off their toes, and I can remember that being pretty horrifying to me as a kid. Body mutilation is not an easy concept for a child to stomach.

    The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite stories, but when I first heard it as a child, those woods and the headless horseman was pretty darn scary.

    Just a quick note on the creepiest movies/TV shows I saw when young. The Bad Seed and the Twilight Zone episode about the boy wishing the people into the cornfield! I am still creeped out by those two evil child stories.

  27. A neighbor wrote children's books, about animals who died. They were so depressing. She used a photo of some bunnies with my children as the basis for some of the art, and then gave us a signed copy of the book. I read it to them once, and after we all ended up sobbing I hid it from them. It was so dreadful.

  28. No one's mentioned Maurice Sendak - his images can be pretty scary. Like Outside Over There which features a lot of scary looking dead babies. Not surprisingly he illustrated a 2-volume set of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

  29. I think I read every fairy tale book the library had! Then I went to another kind of fairy tale in Nancy Drew, , the Hardy Boys, etc. And have never stopped... Thelma Straw in -Manhattan

  30. On the Warped For Life list, Old Yeller and The Red Pony. WHY were those supposed to be good books for children??? Black Beauty was so sad, too, but at least it had a sort of happy ending...

  31. I'm with Grandma C....Anything that hurt animals creeped me out! - still does. No one has mentioned "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" fairy tales from my youth...I don't remember anything about the stories except that they were my favorites.

  32. The Grimm tales were collected folklore, not written for children, though the children surely listened in as they were told and probably stayed tucked in their beds all night, afraid to move. A friend told me that's why he and other camp counselors told scary stories around the campfire. It kept the campers safely in bed for the night.
    I've been told I upset my aunt by crying piteously when she read "The Ugly Duckling" to me . . . poor mistreated baby swan. I first saw Wizard of OZ at the drive in, lying on the hood of my uncle's car. When the witch appeared on the rooftop, I nearly leaped through the windshield.

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