The Worst Canonical Kids’ Books and What to Replace Them With


Recently over at Slate, Gabriel Roth made a very good argument for the basic awfulness of Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Poky Little Puppy, postulating that the only reason that book and books like it persist in our cultural consciousness is because of the nostalgia effect — my mom read this to me, so I’d better read it to my kids, etc. But there is another way! Why not replace some of those canonical (but actually boring, or lame, or morally questionable) kids’ books with some better ones, and stop the nostalgia cycle in its tracks? To that end, please find below a list of canonical children’s books that could be retired, and which books, new and old, to read instead.

Retire: The Poky Little Puppy, Janette Sebring Lowrey

As Roth points out, this book is profoundly boring and pointless. There’s no moral to speak of, or even internal logic other than lip-service repetition. Also, what kind of parenting is going on in this book? Anyway, it’s terrible.

Read Instead: The Sweetest Fig, Chris Van Allsburg

A highly satisfying story in which a mean dentist gets his due AND there’s a cute dog to look at AND there are Van Allsburg’s typical hazy-wonderous illustrations. The cute dog, by the way, wins the day in an epic way.

Retire: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst

What a whiner, this Alexander. The whole book is a chronicle of the small indignities of an average child’s life (gets gum in his hair, trips on his skateboard, doesn’t get rewarded for not doing his schoolwork, makes a mess in his father’s office, bites his tongue, etc). In the end, instead of a lesson about personal responsibility (remember to spit your gum out before you go to sleep, clean your room, draw something next time, sit quietly when asked, etc.), Alexander’s mother gives him a shrug and a “some days are like that.” True enough, and kind of amazing in its nihilism, but…

Read Instead: Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood, Ramona Badescu

Big Rabbit has a bad mood, and seriously it will not leave him alone. It’s big and gray and hairy and it’s taking up all the room on the couch. A much more fun treatment of what it is to be having a terrible day, and with rather a more satisfying ending: all of Big Rabbit’s friends show up, and with them they have a cake made of pancakes, and suddenly that mood monster is no where to be found. Awww.

Retire: Love You Forever, Robert Munsch

Possibly the creepiest children’s book of all time. It starts off OK: the mother loves her baby. She loves him even when he’s a toddler and a pain in the ass. But then you realize she’s sneaking into his room every night, crawling across the floor and rocking him, even when he’s a teenager (shudder). Then, when he’s a grownup, she drives to his house, climbs in his window, and gathers him into her arms, singing to him. 1. Where’s his wife? 2. No. No no no. No. You don’t even get a happy ending when the stalker-mom dies, because you find our her son is doing the same thing to his daughter. The worst.

Read Instead: Wild, Emily Hughes

Excess coddling? There is another way: joyful, feral, luminous wildness!

Retire: The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Admittedly, there is something lovely about the surrealistic images and illustrations in this book — the little bunny finding things to transform into to escape his mother, the mother finding things to transform into to catch him. I like it when he’s a boat, and when she’s a tree. BUT the moral seems to be anti-independence: you can never escape your mother, so why not just sit at home and let her feed you? Not exactly the message that the youth of America need right now.

Read Instead: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, William Steig

All the transformation you could ask for, but much, much better. OK, so there’s only one transformation: Sylvester becoming a rock. But isn’t the story of how, when he makes a wish and gets in trouble, Sylvester’s parents look for him and ultimately bring him back to himself much better than the story of the parent who just won’t let her kid out of her sight? Plus, William Steig, people.

Retire: The Rainbow Fish, Marcus Pfizer

Don’t be taken in by the shininess. The message of this one is that in order to have friends, you have to pry off parts of yourself — in the case of the Rainbow Fish, parts of your physical body — and give them away. Because being popular is more important than maintaining your selfhood! Because in order to be happy you have to look just like everybody else and everybody else has to look just like you! Yay?

Read Instead: Let’s Be Enemies, Janice May Udry and Maurice Sendak

A much more realistic, and dare I say healthy, depiction of the workings of childhood friendship. With sass!

Retire: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

Putting aside how boring this book is, there’s that message. If you give in to your gluttony, it’s fine. If you overeat until you’re in pain, don’t worry. One day you’ll wake up as a beautiful butterfly and everything will be fine!

Read Instead: I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen

OK, so it’s not like the moral we want to be sending to our children is “eat thieves” — but then again, I don’t think they could do that even if they wanted to. Klassen’s recent hit has all the repetition and beautiful illustrations that a good children’s book needs, plus it’s droll and delightfully left of center. And discourages stealing.

Retire: The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen

Seriously, we need to stop reading this to children. The Ugly Duckling is born different, and is teased and persecuted his whole life, no matter where he goes. Finally, he decides to commit suicide by swan, but they won’t kill him, because he is pretty like them. Then he is SO HAPPY. So basically: if you’re ugly, don’t worry. You’ll probably grow up to be beautiful! If not, though, you should probably kill yourself.

Read Instead: Hug Me, Simona Ciraolo

In this adorable book, a young cactus wishes only to be hugged. But when his family rejects him (they’re a prickly bunch, har har), he runs away, only to be rejected by just about everybody else. Eventually he finds two things: independence AND a best friend (a lonely rock, duh).

Retire: The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen

Well, obviously, real princesses are SO delicate that they’d feel a pea under 20 mattresses. And only the most delicate ladies are worthwhile marriage material for princes. That all aside, there’s not even a twist to this one. Woof.

Read Instead: The Princess Who Saved Herself, Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa

Now there’s a princess worthy of marriage (later, whenever she wants to get married) (and also, who cares, because marriage is not a prize for women or a benchmark for life). Let’s just say, that’s a real princess.

Retire: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Laura Numeroff

Never be kind to anyone, kids. If you do, they’ll bleed you dry.

Read Instead: The Hundred Dresses, Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin

A book that actually teaches kindness and consideration, without being unbearably obvious about it, and as a plus, shows how you can be rich in soul without being rich in dollars.

Retire: Curious George, Hans Augusto Rey

Does it strike anyone else as kind of upsetting that Curious George was kidnapped from Africa by the man with the yellow hat? Then he gives George food and drugs and lets him get incarcerated and finally puts him in the zoo. Is curiosity bad or exciting? What about kidnapping? I don’t know.

Read Instead: The Arrival, Shaun Tan

So, this isn’t exactly the same vibe as Curious George. Er, at all. It’s wordless and unbearably gorgeous and serene. There’s no yellow hat. But it is a book about how a recent immigrant sees their new world — with, yes, curiosity, but it’s played for emotion, not laughs. Did I mention it’s gorgeous?