CW: Drug abuse and addiction, homophobia, racism, ableism, sexual abuse
If you were a kid in the 1980s and ’90s, you know that we had some questionable childhood experiences. We played with the most dangerous toys. (I shudder thinking about those butt scooters they let us ride in PE.) We ran the streets without supervision or cell phones. Seatbelts were optional and helmets were practically unheard of. It was the wild west out there.
I can personally remember riding in the front seat of the car from a young age or squeezing into the back seat with like 20 of my cousins. Shoot, once (well before I could even think of getting a driver’s license) my mom sent me to the corner store in her car with a handful of younger neighborhood kids as company. We definitely hit a shopping cart and I swore those kids to secrecy about it.
Besides all those physical dangers, many Millennials probably recall that our television consumption was similarly unmonitored. As a latchkey kid, when I got home I was pretty much on my own. Aside from getting into my best friend’s dad’s Playboy magazine stash, I didn’t get into anything too inappropriate. However, I recall that the content considered appropriate would never fly today. I mean, one of my absolute favorite cartoons was so glaringly racist that I can’t believe it existed.
Luckily, I was more of a reader than a television watcher. Unfortunately, books weren’t always much better. There are a LOT of truly terrible kids’ books from the ’80s and ’90s. From the weird to the creepy to the truly offensive, let’s look at some awful books that would never be published today.
Curious George Takes a Job by H. A. Rey
Listen, Curious George is always suspect. The monkey and man in yellow hat combo has always weirded me out a bit. However, this particular story is infamous. After a work-related injury, George ends up in the hospital. Naturally, he goes exploring and gets into trouble. Unfortunately, he happens upon a bottle of ether and takes a whiff. The subsequent illustrations of stoned George make sniffing ether look like a lot of fun. Take that, War on Drugs!
Crickle-Crack by Stephen Cosgrove
This terrifying gem came out in 1987 so, if pop culture has taught me anything, everyone was on cocaine. Thus, it’s not surprising that anti-drug messaging would be prevalent in children’s books. Don’t let the squirrel on the cover fool you. After he ignores warnings to stay away from the crickle-crack tree, this cute little dude ends up glassy-eyed and strung out. When the other squirrels take action and try chopping down the narcotic tree, the thing regenerates. Thanks for the nightmares, Cosgrove!
The House That Crack Built by Clark Taylor
One more book from the War on Drugs era. This has similar themes to Crickle-Crack, but features humans. It tells of how drugs ruin a community and harm babies. However, the strangest part is how it glorifies drug dealing. Seriously, the crack dealers live in mansions. Why would I want to stay in my terrible, drug-ravaged community when I could sell crack and live in a mansion?
Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki
As if seeing adorable little animals on drugs wasn’t disturbing enough, ’80s kids had the opportunity to experience the bombing of Hiroshima thanks to this disturbing tale. While I’m far from against tackling tough topics in children’s literature, this book is particularly disturbing because of its imagery. The vivid depictions of the bomb melting people’s clothes, limbs, and faces off is enough to give anyone nightmares. The story follows a family who start the day eating breakfast…and end up engulfed in flames.
Little Zizi by Stéphane Poulin and Thierry Lenain
Um. I am not even sure of the point of this 1997 train wreck of a book. It’s all about a boy named Martin who has a small penis. The poor kid is teased relentlessly about it. It seems that even the narrator is in on it. When Martin’s crush tells him that she wants to be a mom someday, the narrator asks, “But how could Martin possibly make them with such a little zizi?” That’s not how it works and, also, what a ridiculous euphemism.
Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child’s Book about Satanic Ritual Abuse by Doris Sanford and Graci Evans
Ah, memories. There was a significant period in American history when everyone was panicking about satanic cults. The media proclaimed that the satanists were coming for our children and boy did we believe them. Inspired by the national terror, this book told the story of a group of children subjected to horrible rituals at daycare. It tried to focus on healing from that trauma in kid-friendly language, but it was not successful in doing anything but making it onto lists like these.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be an Aztec Sacrifice! by Fiona Macdonald and David Antram
Ever wondered how the Aztec people chose their human sacrifices and why? Do you want to know exactly how they killed them? (Spoiler alert: it involves potions to make victims drowsy and the removal of their hearts.) ’90s kids were weird and maybe us avidly watching Legends of the Hidden Temple prompted this book, but come on Scholastic!
The Mystery of the Midget Clown by Ann Bradford
Alfie’s Home by Richard A. Cohen and Elizabeth Sherman
This is hands down the worst book on this list and maybe the most terrible kids’ book ever written. Alfie thinks he’s gay because he was molested by his gay uncle. As if that’s not bad enough, the uncle cries and asks for forgiveness and “that really helped” Alfie. This homophobic trash fire also promotes conversion therapy, which supposedly worked for its “ex-gay” author.
Donkey-Skin by Charles Perrault
To be fair, this fairytale originated in the 1600s, so it isn’t exactly right for this list of terrible kids’ books from the ’80s and ’90s. However, since it’s been recently retold and made into a movie, I had to include it. In summary, a widowed king decides to marry his daughter. The daughter escapes the marriage by hiding in the skin of his favorite donkey and running away. After posing as a donkey for some time, she meets a prince and lives happily ever after. WHAT. IS. THE. LESSON. HERE.
Elephant Elephant: A Book of Opposites by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais
Bonus round! This 2001 title proves that weird books have continued to get published. I couldn’t help but include this terrible book of opposites. This anatomically flawed, binary illustration isn’t the only disaster in this book. Apparently, plugged and unplugged are antonyms young children need to know. Imagine this image of the elephants but with a cork strategically placed in the “boy” while the uncorked “girl” spurts water. Yeah.
There you have it. I hope these terrible kids’ books from the ’80s and ’90s have disturbed you as much as they did me. It’s no wonder we’re the generation to truly embrace therapy.