Why Dark Childrens Books are the Best

Ah, The Giving Tree. Such a sweet story about the love between a boy and his favorite tree. They grow together, swinging, talking, goofin’ around. And then [SPOILER ALERT] the boy starts to take advantage of the tree, taking her apples (which she willingly gives him) to sell. By adulthood, the boy decides to cut down his childhood best friend to become a boat. Even as a stump, with nothing left to give, the tree is still happy. As an adult, the boy realized he doesn’t want wealth or material things; he just wants “a quiet place to sit and rest.” So he sits next to the stump he created. Um… that’s a little dark and disturbing, no?


Many people remember this book because it was heartbreaking (I am tearing now…). Some people argue the book is too dark for children. But Shel Silverstein’s book is about the circle of life- something so profoundly real. It not only touches the souls of readers; it sticks with them. Life is tumultuous, it starts and it ends, with so much joy and misery in between, like a book. Like the Giving Tree.  Like so many children’s books that we have loved throughout our life. Children’s books with dark storylines are the ones that grow with us, from silly kids to less silly adults. 

If that’s not frightening, what is!? 

We might not fully understand the messages behind grimmer tales when we are young, but many of my favorite children’s books are the dark ones. Roald Dahl’s The Witches freaked me out but I also LOVED it- and I still do. Sure the witches were terrifying killers, but there was also this sweet little boy and his grandmother. Their relationship remains so strong, even after he’s turned into a mouse! For those who forgot, the boy doesn’t mind that he will only live another 9 years (a mouse’s life span is epically short) because he wants to die with his grandmother. It’s dark, but it’s also amazing. Their bond is stronger than anything else in the story which is what really stays with you. That, and they defeat the witches.

Of course, the more depressing children’s books are still meant for youngins who want at least some cheer in their books. Most dark children’s books have positive messages. The Witches and The Giving Tree both show the power and importance of family and friendship. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, young Max runs away to ‘escape’ the reality of his home. He finds friendship in his imaginary world.

Sendak lets children know it’s ok to not like your reality, even if it isn’t that bad. And that’s something that children’s books are so good at- telling children that it’s ok to feel so damn sad, discontent, or whatever they may feel. This extends into adulthood. Books and movies targeted towards adults often delve into depression, and there’s no reason children’s books shouldn’t explore the darker side of the human mind or humanity.

You must fend for yourself, and nature, according to the Lorax. Image courtesy of quotesy. 

There are other children’s books that explore the darker side of humanity, like The Lorax and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which focus on making good decisions and being conscientious about the world and people around you. Yet again, the stories are somewhat dark, but leave you with a positive feeling. There’s also something about the scary side of books that’s entertaining, even as a kid. Nothing stays with you longer than fear- like the fear of drowning in a chocolate river!

Perhaps the best part of these children’s books is that there are messages for children and adults. The meaning and message of the story changes as you get older, but the book remains relevant. Disney has caught on to this trend. For example, Inside Out is such a cheerful, hopeful movie. But the middle of the film is dark. The protagonist is depressed, she cries for no apparent reason, she doesn’t want to talk to her parents or her best friend; long story short, she is in a dark, dark place in her young life. The film shows that you are allowed to be incredibly unhappy and to feel hopeless.

Image courtesy of Giphy.

Dark children’s books give us a different type of optimism, one that comes from pessimism and the sometimes sad, sometimes happy reality of life. They are important, and great counterparts to cheerful children’s books. When I really think about all my childhood favorites, they all seem to be a bit dark… Wait. Are all children’s books kind of dark?!

As my coworker stated, dark kid’s stories “give you enough truth about the world so even as a child, you realize there’s no BS.” Because life isn’t all bubbles and candy and butterflies (not even in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). 

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