Books for kids today are a lot warmer and fuzzier than our childhood required reading! My son will never know the terror of abandoned mice, warring bunnies, or bunnies ripped from the hands of a sick child (what was it with sad and killer bunnies???). Each and every one of these books had a huge impact on the way I see things…and not always in a shiny happy way! Check them out and tell me if you agree!
Children’s Books That Changed My View on Life
Like all the best life-changing books, many of these have appeared (and continue to appear) on banned books lists. The people who challenge books are usually people who don’t like to be challenged themselves. They can’t handle anything that doesn’t fit their small-minded cookie-cutter view of the world, so of course they’d want life-changing children’s books banned.
Some of these books traumatized me. Others shaped my outlook on politics. All (even the one I didn’t read) helped create the person I am today.
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1. The Velveteen Rabbit
Every time I get sick, my first thought is, “I better tuck Mr. Bear away in the closet until I get over it!” First, yes, I am a 40+ year-old-woman who still sleeps with her teddy bear (he was a gift from my aunt, who we lost to cancer a couple of years ago). Second, this weird thinking began way back when I first read The Velveteen Rabbit in school as a child.
See, while the story has a relatively happy ending for the bunny, I always honed in on the fact that the boy lost his treasured and most beloved stuffed pal just because he was sick. So, every single time I got so much as a sniffle, I was terrified that someone would come and burn all my toys, including Mr. Bear, who has been with me since I was a toddler. While rational thought prevails and I don’t actually rush to the closet to hide him, I still think about the sad boy in the story every time I get sick.Amazon
2. Walter the Lazy Mouse
First, this book drove me nuts for nearly a decade because I could not remember the title of it. I even briefly worked in a library during my college days and scoured the children’s section, reading every single book spine, until I finally fount it. Then, I promptly forgot it again until years later. Now, I have it written down in the back of my book log so I never forget again.
Although it was one of my favorite stories (despite my inability to remember its name), I always found it incredibly sad. I mean, the title mouse’s family leaves him behind when they move because THEY FORGOT ABOUT HIM, all because he was a little slow and lazy. His family FORGETS he exists! Seriously, how is this not traumatizing???Amazon
3. Watership Down
In Richard Adam’s defense, I don’t think he ever actually intended this to be a children’s book. Yet, just because it’s about bunnies, it was always shelved with other kids’ books. Same goes for the movie. I worked in a video store in my early 20s (back when they still existed) and fought to have it reclassified out of the kiddie section.
If you haven’t read the book, it’s filled with bunny-murdering humans, warlord bunnies, oppressive (and oppressed bunnies), bunnies living in fear, bunnies who betray, bunnies just looking for a mate so they can do what bunnies do best; and weird religious bunnies. What it doesn’t have? Warm and fuzzy happy bunnies. Well, at least not until the very end.Amazon
4. Animal Farm
Animal Farm by George Orwell is one of my all-time favorite books, but it still left a pretty brutal impression on my 13-year-old mind (it was required summer reading before going into high school). See, if you’re a young teen who hasn’t heard of Orwell yet. you think you’re getting a fun little book about animals who band together to take back the farm from a not-so-nice farmer.
While you do get that at first, it quickly devolves into a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and how easy it is to trick and take advantage of the working class just by promising them something different (hmmmm, sounds kind of familiar). To a teen that already leaned in the antiestablishmentarianism and anti-authoritarianism direction, the message is very clear: power can be trusted in the hands on no one.
The last line always stayed with me. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
5. Old Yeller
I don’t know how anyone in their right mind ever thought this could be anything but a life-wrecking book for kids! Seriously, parents of the 70s and 80s, what the actual eff were you thinking??? If you managed to make it through your childhood without discovering the horror that is Old Yeller, let me sum it up for you: boy finds stray dog, boy loves dog, dog loves boy, dog saves boy, dog gets rabies, dog gets shot. The end.
As a result, I’ve spent my many dog-owning years completely terrified that my dog would get rabies and have to be shot out behind the shed. Never mind the fact that they’re vaccinated. Somewhere in the back of my mind lives a voice that says, “Yeah, but vaccines don’t always work.”Amazon
6. Where the Red Fern Grows
After being traumatized for life by Old Yeller, I opted to stay far, far away from this one. My brother, on the other hand, is still depressed about it nearly three decades after reading it. Again, it’s a story of a boy and his dogs. Boy loves dogs, dogs love boy, dogs save boy from a lion, dogs die. The end.
While it’s one of the top 100 most recommend books for kids age 9-14, I would never recommend it to my own son. Like me, he doesn’t handle the death of animals very well, be it in reality or fiction.Amazon
7. Charlotte’s Web
Charlotte’s Web is another one of my favorites that equally delighted and traumatized me for life. No other story in the whole wide world can make you feel bad for a spider the way this one can. However, it wasn’t just Charlotte’s death that depressed me, it was the idea that Fern gave her beloved pig to her uncle for safe keeping and he instead opted to fatten Wilbur up to turn him into bacon.
I mean, she plead for his life, nursed and nurtured him when he was the runt of the litter, and loved him like a pet, and her uncle decides, “Hey, he’ll make a great sausage platter!” We don’t turn our children’s pets into breakfast. It’s just not very nice!Amazon
8. The Plague Dogs
Another Richard Adams book that’s often mistaken for a children’s story, The Plague Dogs is anything but. Yes, it’s a tale of two super smart dogs on an adventure. However, that “adventure” begins when they escape an incredibly cruel and inhumane animal research facility. Rather than find peace and solace on a happy farm somewhere (ideally not on one that turns kids’ pets into bacon), they are brutally hunted.
While it’s questionable as to whether or not they survive (the ending as added on later to make the book a smidge less depressing), if you’re even remotely sensitive to animal abuse and cruelty, this book will wreck your life.Amazon
9. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
As a teenager, I suffered from extreme depression and anxiety. While it may seem counterproductive to read books in which the main character also suffers from severe psychological conditions, it actually helped me immensely. Books like this told me that I wasn’t alone. Perhaps more importantly, they helped others see that just because you can’t see the source of someone’s pain doesn’t mean it isn’t real.Amazon
10. Bridge to Terabithia
Bridge to Terabithia has to be among the most traumatizing books ever because, unless someone warns you ahead of time, you never see the tragedy coming. Maybe that’s the lesson of the story. It’s definitely the one that stuck with me.Perhaps the lesson for you is how one person can completely change the life of another. Or maybe it’s about finding the courage that lives deep inside of you. Maybe all of the above and then some. It’s one of those books that you can’t walk away from unchanged in at least some way.Amazon
Last update on 2023-05-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API