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Explainer: 9 most subversive children’s books ever written

  • Image: Cover of "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom"
    HarperCollins

    Ever notice how many kids’ books encourage 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds to stick it to the man? Books with subversive themes — some subtle, some unmistakable — are part of a proud tradition that began decades ago in children’s literature.

    Legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom had a simple, subversive vision: to publish “good books for bad children.” And, from 1940 to 1973, that’s just what she did. During her remarkable tenure, Nordstrom edited the likes of Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, E.B. White and Margaret Wise Brown and helped bring to birth such classics as “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Goodnight Moon.”

    Granted, “Goodnight Moon” isn’t overwhelmingly subversive — (although that old lady who whispers “Hush!” all the time sure seems to be a thorn in the side of that little bunny). But make no mistake: Plenty of classics published in the early and mid-20th century by Nordstrom and others have encouraged thousands upon thousands of little ones to think for themselves. To see how, just click on the “next” arrow at left or click on “show more items” below and keep scrolling down.

  • "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963)

    Image: Cover of "Where the Wild Things Are"
    Harper Collins

    A staple in thousands of children’s book collections for decades now, “Where the Wild Things Are” stars a misbehaving little boy named Max. The tale begins with Max donning his wolf suit and making “mischief of one kind and another” — i.e., ruining a wall inside his house, chasing his dog with a fork and yelling at his mom. He gets sent to bed without his supper — and then gets rewarded for all of that bad behavior with the adventure of a lifetime. “In a way that book is saying that Max is justified in doing what he did because he has this unbelievable, amazing experience,” said children’s book publisher Anne Schwartz, vice president of Schwartz & Wade Books. Max gets to set sail in his own private boat to a land where impressionable, friendly monsters eagerly play with him for hours on end. If you could have an experience like that, would you consider misbehaving?

  • “The Red Balloon” (1956)

    Image: Cover of "The Red Balloon"
    Doubleday Books

    There’s so much to examine in “The Red Balloon” — the classic Albert Lamorisse book adapted from the film by the same name — that it’s worthy of dissection in a Ph.D. dissertation. Throughout the tale, though, one message becomes clear: Adults can be morons. Almost every grown-up in the life of Pascal — a Parisian boy who looks to be about 8 or 9 — fails him in large and small ways. His school principal locks him up in a bathroom-less office for hours; the church guard kicks him out of church for a minor offense; and, in a fit of anger, his mother takes the one item that has made her lonely son a tiny bit happy — a red balloon — and throws it out the window. The circumstances of the story lead readers of any age to cheer Pascal on when he sneaks his balloon friend back into his bedroom and conceals it from his mother. Even better: When the balloons of Paris unite and take Pascal far, far away from all the kid bullies and short-sighted grown-ups in his life. Hooray!

  • “The Little Engine That Could” (1930)

    Image: Cover of "The Little Engine That Could"
    Grosset & Dunlap

    This famous tale of can-do optimism gave us the phrase, “I think I can — I think I can — I think I can” ... but did it also contain a subtly subversive feminist message? Consider this: The engine that breaks down in the beginning of the book is female. She had been trying to take an assortment of toys and food to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. When she cannot go any farther, the dolls and toys flag down other engines and ask for a ride. A shiny new passenger engine (male), a powerful freight engine (male), and a rusty old engine (male) all refuse to help. “I am a very important engine indeed,” the freight engine says. “I won’t pull the likes of you!” It turns out that the only other engine who deigns to worry compassionately about the children on the other side of the mountain is a very little blue engine, who is — you guessed it — female. Go girl power!

  • “The Story of Ferdinand” (1936)

    Image: Cover of "The Story of Ferdinand"
    Viking Juvenile

    “The Story of Ferdinand” casts a strong and mighty bull as the ultimate pacifist. Who knew Ferdinand’s utter disinterest in fighting could be so wildly unpopular? Noting how big and brawny Ferdinand is, influential power brokers haul him all the way from Spain’s peaceful countryside to the bustling city of Madrid. They expect him to battle ferociously in Madrid’s famed bull fight. But when he gets there, sweet-natured Ferdinand sits down in the middle of the ring so he can smell all the flowers being worn by the many lovely ladies in attendance. Of course, his flower-fueled, peaceable stance stuns and angers everyone around him — but it saves his life and the lives of untold numbers of banderilleros, picadores, horses, and, of course, the matador himself. Ole!

  • “The Lorax” (1971)

    Image: Cover of "The Lorax"
    Random House

    Pretty much any book you’ll pick up by Theodor Seuss Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — is bound to be at least somewhat rabble-rousing. In fact, Dr. Seuss once said, “I’m subversive as hell! I’ve always had a mistrust of adults.” While he tried to avoid sledgehammer-style morals in his books — on the grounds that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off” — he tackled serious issues and left no question about his feelings on corporate greed, materialism, the environment, equality and authoritarianism. In “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss lambasts the greed and short-sightedness of the Once-ler, who chopped down every single Truffula tree he could find and polluted the air and water in order to keep on “biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering” his business. In the end, even the Once-ler comes to his senses, telling a little boy, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

  • “Yertle the Turtle” (1950)

    Image: Cover of "Yertle the Turtle"
    Random House

    Speaking of subversive Dr. Seuss books, “Yertle the Turtle” is practically a call to arms. Some turtles in a nice little pond on the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond were happy and content — until their self-appointed king Yertle became overcome by delusions of grandeur. The power-hungry turtle said, “I’m ruler of all that I see. But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me.” So, he kept ordering turtles to pile up in a stack so he could perch atop them and enjoy his heady new view. He started with a nine-turtle throne, then progressed to a 200-turtle throne, then made a move to stack up 5,607 turtles — and that’s when Mack, a plain little turtle at the very bottom of the stack, burped. The turtle stack shook and toppled, causing Yertle to crash, humiliated, into the mud of the little pond. The book’s conclusion? “... all the turtles are free as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

  • “Madeline” (1939)

    Image: Cover of "Madeline's Rescue"
    Puffin

    Madeline, the smallest of 12 girls who live in a boarding school in Paris, is tough. She’s not afraid of mice or the growling tiger at the zoo — and she also isn’t afraid to stand up to authority figures. This becomes especially apparent in “Madeline’s Rescue,” one of the later books in the “Madeline” series. In that book, fearless Madeline falls into the river Seine after monkey-ing around on a bridge. A dog saves her life, then comes home to live with the girls at the school. Happiness prevails for about six months — until trustees visit the school to conduct an annual inspection. The horrified trustees cite an arbitrary rule about dogs not being allowed in school — and then the president of the board of trustees, Lord Cucuface, heartlessly sends the life-saving dog Genevieve away. Madeline cries, “Lord Cucuface, beware! Miss Genevieve, noblest dog in France, you shall have your VEN-GE-ANCE!” The moment the trustees leave, all 12 girls and their headmistress take to the streets of Paris to search for their furry family member. When Genevieve is found, they allow her — and all 12 of her newborn puppies — to stay with them, regardless of the rules.

  • “Curious George” (1941)

    Image: Cover of "The Original Curious George"
    HMH Books

    For nearly 70 years now, a mischievous little monkey named George has been teaching us that curiosity is a good thing, not a bad thing. Of course, George’s insatiable curiosity tends to get him into trouble. In the original “Curious George” book — published in 1941 and written by a German Jew who escaped the Nazis with his monkey watercolors strapped to his bicycle — the story begins with George becoming overwhelmingly curious about a yellow hat he spots on the ground in his African jungle home. He tries the hat on, obscures his vision and — blam! — gets thrown into a sack and shipped off to a zoo in a faraway city. “George was sad, but he was still a little curious,” the classic book notes. As the story unfolds, curiosity prompts George to fall overboard during his trans-Atlantic journey, set off a false alarm with the fire department in his new city, get thrown into prison, escape from prison and cause a terrible traffic jam — and readers can’t help but cheer him on every step of the way.

  • “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type” (2000)

    Image: Cover of "Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type"
    Atheneum

    Thankfully for kids’ brains everywhere, the longstanding subversive tradition in children’s literature has continued to thrive in modern times. Here’s just one noteworthy (and hilarious) example: “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.” In this book, Farmer Brown’s cows have figured out how to type — and they’ve also figured out how to stick up for themselves. They begin leaving the grumpy farmer notes, starting with this one: “Dear Farmer Brown, The barn is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” When he refuses, the cows go on strike and refuse to produce milk. The hens also want electric blankets, and when the farmer stalls, they join the strike and stop laying eggs. The standoff continues, with Duck (a neutral party) delivering messages back and forth between the barn and Farmer Brown’s house. Can you guess whether or not this story ends with toasty warm cows and hens?

    Plenty of other modern-day books for very young kids highlight the antics of bright, independent children and animals. To name just a few memorable characters: Jack, the Little Red Hen and others in “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” (1992); the gorilla and other zoo animals in “Good Night, Gorilla” (1994); Olivia in the “Olivia” series of books (first published in 2000); the little boy (and the cows) in “Cows Can’t Fly” (2000); the pigeon in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” (2003) and other pigeon books; the big sister in “How to Be a Baby ... by Me, the Big Sister” (2007); and the big sister in “17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore” (2007). Do you have your own favorite books in this vein — either modern-day works or classics?If so, share them here!

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