We expect a children’s book to be a wholesome, delightful romp through rainbows, furry animals and cute-and-fuzzy feels with some subtle but constructive education thrown in there along the way. But the juxtaposition of turning this predictable, safe genre with sinister, mature themes never fails to shock; from the cute-but-deadly Chucky doll to the killer clown, we’re unfailingly scandalised when the children’s genre is usurped by an evil cast of characters. On a rare occasion, though, a book genuinely aimed at an infant audience can go very – often hilariously – wrong. Whether written by an open-minded or liberal adult hoping to educate children in some harsh or mature realities, or simply an ill-judged but well-intentioned conception, certain kids’ novels have caused huge, highly-publicized controversy. Some level the criticism that parents and teachers are hyper-sensitive – and, indeed, some of the books on our list are controversial only by dent of their uncompromising honesty on subjects that the open-minded parent would find patently inoffensive. Some though, are tasteless and disturbing at best. Cultural mores, political norms and historical standards all play a part in what we deem to be ‘controversial’ or otherwise – and when our children’s’ education is involved, emotions tend to run particularly high.
The free market and liberal (or naively optimistic) publishers mean that certain books aimed at our youngest generation have emerged over the last decade which have proved questionable at best. We’ve collated ten of the most controversial picks in literature for children; if you want to incite some debate around the Christmas tree this season, this could serve as a handy present shopping list!
10. And Tango Makes Three : 2005
This book, written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, does everything a children’s novel should; it’s warm and undeniable fuzzy, it encourages love and acceptance and strong value values… And it was banned in numerous schools across America. The book is inspired by the true story of two male penguins who famously formed a familial bond and raised an egg together in Central Park Zoo, New York. Objections to this one are telling of a general cultural bias, as the novel itself is otherwise perfectly uncontroversial. The book was listed as the ‘most challenged’ by the American Library Association between 2007 and 2008.
9. The Long Journey Of Mister Poop 2007
This arguably gratuitous picture book (yes, picture book) tells the story of ‘Mister Poop’ who is, as the name would suggest, a personification of human excrement. The novel itself claims that it will give kids ‘every noisy detail’ of where poop comes from with colourful illustrations to boot. Technically, it’s a kid-friendly explanation of the digestive system but the title and eponymous character are generally perceived to be shocking. This was originally a Spanish language children’s book – perhaps the title just translates badly?
8. Hair in Funny Places 2001
The second less-than-subtle educational book on our list, this novel by outrageous British author Babette Cole aims to teach adolescent girls about the process of puberty. The fifth is Cole’s series of ‘family dilemma’ novels, the novel follows a young girl and her friends Mister and Mrs Hormone – fully illustrated, of course. Controversial mainly due to its unflinching, even comedic approach to some delicate issues, this novel follows Cole’s typically ‘unconventional’ style. Another of her more controversial books include ‘Mummy Laid An Egg’ and her novel on divorce, ‘Two Of Everything’.
7. Where Willy Went 2005
One for the parents who don’t quite know how to answer the ‘where do babies come from?’ question, this one is an unashamed story about a sperm’s journey. Nicholas Allen relates the tale (pardon the pun) of a sperm and his millions of little friends who live inside Mr. Browne. He’s in a race, of course, to win the egg prize. Not for the prudish reader, this is a playful but much more scientific approach than the standard ‘stork’ answer.
6. Clown D’Urgence 2001
Probably most controversial for its frankly terrifying front cover, the contents of this Frecnh children’s novel by Thierry Dedieu is in fact entirely at odds with the menacing title and cover illustration. The clown of the title is an older man who acts as a clown at a pediatric ward to cheer up the children (actually, we admit that has potential to be creepy) and he forms a close bond with one of the kids in particular (again, possible creepy but it’s all well-meaning!). The ‘Emergency Clown’ has courted controversy because, frankly, clowns and hospitals are scary and a clown in a doctor’s uniform on the front of a blood red cover is essentially a recipe for children’s nightmares.
5. All My Friends Are Dead 2010
This darkly comedic picture-book style comic strip became an instant hit online, depicting characters that are extinct, endangered or otherwise threatened. It’s education for kids, and humorous for adults, but the distinctly dark undertone of the novel makes this pick one of the most controversial, unusual kids’ books on the market.
4. Girls Are Not Chicks colouring book 2009
Billed as a subversive coloring book, this picture book gives little girls and boys the chance to colour in some empowering cartoons on kids who leave behind the entrapments of historical gender roles. A hilarious read for adults, this one’s a great way to unwittingly educate kids in thinking outside the lines while teaching them to colour inside the lines. Controversial for its genre-bending shock tactics, this one’s a favourite among open-minded adults. A variation on the theme is the ‘Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon’ colouring book, an education on breaking gender categorizations.
3. Who Cares About Disabled People 1995
This is a superficially well-meaning book that has attracted wide-spread controversy due to misjudged cover art. Part of the ‘Who Cares?’ series, the highly controversial title of this book comes off as a boorish dismissal of disabled people. Moreover, in a move that’s either oddly naive or the wrong side of politically correct, the book they classifies alcoholics and fat people as ‘disabled’. An interesting choice, but whether or not you agree with it you’re still unlikely to purchase this book given its indisputably shameful title.
2. It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana 2005
A cute, illustrated children’s book on botany… Specifically, marijuana. We don’t really need to tell you why this book is controversial – and in case you’re wondering, nope this isn’t a grown-ups’ book masking as a kid’s novel for artistic shock value. It’s a genuine, apparently well-intentioned educational book specifically for a young audience. It’s billed as a way for parents to introduce their children to the complex issues surrounding the drug, as it follows a little girl on her journey discovering all the social and scientific facts about the plant from a varied cast of characters. This book exploded in the media upon its release, causing political objection from several factions – the author of the book was sat on a Fox News panel with Republican representatives, during which he was slammed for his perceived endorsement of the legalisation of cannabis. The book garnered positive reviews elsewhere though, with critics calling it funny, offbeat and educational.
1. Go the F**k To Sleep 2011
A children’s picture book, aimed more at weary parents than unsuspecting infants, this book elicited worldwide attention even before it was officially released. It was an instant hit, reaching the top 3 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Author Adam Mansbach became a fixture on the literary media circuit but the book’s promotion took on a life of its own when the novel went viral via social media. The book is told in the manner of a bedtime story, but with shock punch-lines. Readers and reviewers loved it, but it’s shock value and controversial content is exactly what rendered this book a hit worldwide.
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