Hello, all! I’ve been watching so many horror movies lately that I really got to thinking about what is truly terrifying: young adult literature. For every Nancy Drew published, you have The Face on the Milk Carton. And these books are really screwed up. Forget the ventriloquist dummies of Goosebumps; if you really want to scare kids, have them start to wonder whether they’ve been kidnapped. Here are my list of the most traumatizing children’s/ young adult books that I’ve read (in no particular order):
- The Face on the Milk Carton- Caroline B Cooney
Summary: 15-year-old Janie Johnson is having a swell life until she discovers a picture of her younger self on the side of a milk carton. After doing some investigating, she realizes that she was kidnapped at the age of three. However, she doesn’t think her parents, the elderly, gentle Johnson couple, have anything to do with it. In the end, she learns that their daughter was indoctrinated into a cult and was responsible for her kidnapping, of which they had no knowledge. She finds her real family and gives them a call, but all is not perfect, because there are at least four more books in the series.
I’d like to thank Caroline B Cooney for making me view the milk cartons I buy for lunch in a totally new light. I think what really makes this book scary is how much of a mind-fuck it is. Janie didn’t know she was kidnapped, but neither did her fake parents. She’s been living a lie her entire life. It really made a vulnerable eleven-year-old me wonder: “was I kidnapped too?” I mean, doesn’t everyone have those thoughts where they wonder if they might find some incriminating pictures or forms that reveal a secret adoption? This story seriously reinforced those thoughts. And I think the worst part is that instead of a happy ending where Janie is reunited with her parents, she has to deal with real adult emotions like feeling love for the parents of her kidnapper and feeling no emotion for her true parents. Can you imagine meeting your real parents after 15 years, after they’d convinced themselves that you were dead, and just walking out on them? It was a very confusing and mature book to read as a little tween, I’ll tell you that.
Trauma Level: 3/5 Disturbed Cats
2. Driver’s Ed- Caroline B Cooney
Summary: Three teenagers taking a driver’s education class start a game where they steal road signs. Two of the teens, Remy and Morgan, go out late one night and steal a Stop sign from the intersection of two streets. The next day, they learn that a young mother was killed in a car accident after driving through that intersection. The teens must grapple with their needs to confess their crime and their worry about being held criminally responsible.
What the hell, Cooney? First a story about a kidnapped girl, then another story about an innocent prank turning into a deadly crime? These books are supposed to be for children! I feel like this story is supposed to teach children about the unpredictable nature of death, but all it did was make me terrified of street signs. I even freaked out when my brother brought home our street sign (it had fallen in a storm) because I thought he might indirectly become responsible for some woman’s untimely death! Also, if I remember correctly (which I probably don’t), both of the main characters were real dicks and they got off scott-free for their crimes, even after their confessions. One of the summaries I read said that Morgan’s family “cancelled Christmas” when they found out. Boohoo, Morgan! You should be in jail!
I’m looking at the list of Caroline B Cooney books on Wikipedia and realizing that I’ve read a lot of them and that they were all equally terrible. There was that one about a girl whose entire family was murdered by Native Americans and becomes a hostage, and another one about this girl who is sold from island to island during the Trojan war, and another one about a girl who has a 747 crash into her backyard and must rescue the survivors (this is supposed to be hopeful somehow?) and the list can go on and on. Needless to say, Caroline B Cooney doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of children’s literature.
Trauma Level: 4.8/5 Battle scarred Katnisses
3. The Dollhouse Murders- Betty Ren Wright
Summary: Two girls, Amy and her mentally-disabled sister Louann, visit their aunt’s house for a few weeks. They find a dollhouse that is an exact replica of their aunt’s house, where their great-grandparents used to live. Each time they visit the dollhouse, the dolls appear to change positions. Soon it becomes clear that they’re reenacting their great-grandparent’s murder thirty years earlier. The girls use this evidence to discover the true murderer.
I’m not sure why this book terrified me so much. Maybe because I had an ANTIQUE DOLLHOUSE EXACTLY LIKE THIS ONE? Surely, just a coincidence. Another example of a great concept horribly misapplied for a young audience. Hey, kids, remember that time when your favorite dolly mysteriously moved? Did you ever think that it’s reconstructing the murder of your great-grandparents! I still think about this book whenever I see a dollhouse. Because, think about it. What haven’t these dolls seen in their lives? Especially the really old ones from the 1890s and so on. They’ve probably been witnesses to hundreds of murders. Imagine what stories they would tell…Okay I probably shouldn’t have gone wandering around in Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, home of the the freakiest dolls on the planet. The real question is: what other inanimate objects are trying to tell us things? The lamps? The Christmas tree ornaments? Oh my god, what did they see Santa do?
Trauma Level: 4/5 Crying Don Drapers
4. The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane- Kate DiCamillo
Summary: Edward Tulane is a china rabbit owned by a wealthy girl named Abilene. She loves him, but teaches him to be vain and pampered. On a journey across the ocean, she accidentally drops him in the ocean where he remains until a storm brings him to shore. There he is passed from owner to owner until he is once again bought by Abilene many years later.
This reminds me of Black Beauty, if Black Beauty was a creepy china bunny. My teacher read this novel to us in fourth grade and I remember being struck by how much sadness a single children’s book can contain. The most disturbing part to me was when Edward passes into the hands of two young children, one with tuberculosis, and he has to watch the girl die. It’s actually a really great story with beautiful pictures, but it’s one of those books that I think is too mature for young readers. Trying to understand death when you’re in fourth grade is really difficult, especially when it’s sprinkled into your children’s books like oops, killed that girl, and oops, killed that hobo. But in the end, Edward learned a lot about himself…blah blah did we have to read about that little girl dying? Kate DiCamillo is another one of those authors who writes despicably heart wrenching books and labels them as “children’s literature.” Goddamn Tale of Desperaux! Why was he so in love with that princess? Why did that poor cauliflower-eared girl turn so evil? Why, DiCamillo, why?!
Trauma Level: 3/5 Disgusted Sally Drapers
5. Joey Pigza Swallows the Key: Jack Gantos
Summary: A fifth-grader with ADHD has difficulty fitting in at school. His hyper-active behavior causes him to make many mistakes and endanger others. He is transferred to a special education class, but at the end of the book is given a special patch to control his disorder.
Looking back on this book, I can see now that it’s a heartwarming tale of a young boy struggling with ADHD. But as a fifth grader, I didn’t understand ADHD and Joey’s antics disturbed me. In one episode, he sharpens his finger in the pencil sharpener. In another, he runs with scissors and accidentally cuts off the tip of a girl’s nose. Instead of understanding Joey, I just became more scared of him. I think it was because I had similar kids in my class who acted like this and made me antsy to be around. It’s interesting to look back and see how books that affected me so deeply in the past would have no effect now. I had the same sort of disturbed reaction after reading one of Jerry Spinelli’s books, I can’t remember which one, about a kid with autism who almost dies of hypothermia in the snow. On one hand, I’m glad that authors write novels for children about mental disorders, but on the other I think that those books can be uncomfortable to read at a young age like fourth or fifth grade. Food for thought, anyway.
Trauma Level: 4.3/ 5 Creepy Burgers
I had the hardest time today trying to decide which Taylor Swift video is the most dramatic because they are all way.too.dramatic, but I’ve narrowed it down to two. I do this important work so that you don’t have to. #therealmvp