7 Classic Children's Books With Shockingly Dark Backstories
Every writer, whether they realize it or not, brings their own experiences and biases into every story they produce, regardless of whether they're writing East Of Eden or The Berenstain Bears Get Ursine Diabetes.
But now and then those personal experiences come from an absolute waking nightmare of a life and end up fueling some of the cherished books you read as a kid. That's right, gang -- it was the private and horrific torments of total strangers that taught you the joys of imagination.
Harry Potter Is A Direct Result Of The Death Of J.K. Rowling's Mother
Harry Potter is easily the most beloved children's franchise that opens with a double murder and attempted infanticide. But J.K. Rowling didn't make Harry an orphan because she had just watched a bunch of Disney movies -- when she was 25, her mother died after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her father is still around, but their already-difficult relationship became worse after her mom's death, and they didn't speak for years, which may explain why James Potter, in addition to being dead, is a bit of an asshole.
The wrong guy became a rat.
To wit, when Goblet Of Fire came out, Rowling gave her pops a signed copy reading, "Lots of love from your first born." The elder Rowling treasured this gift for three whole years before auctioning it off for $48,000, because your children's love doesn't put beer in the fridge.
After her mom's death, Rowling got married and had a daughter ... and then got divorced, left her job, fell into a severe depression, lived in relative poverty, and contemplated suicide. This period inspired the series' happiness-destroying, soul-eating Dementors, the haunting, yet admittedly lucrative, embodiment of the misery Rowling had been experiencing.
Harry Potter And The Smiths Greatest Hits Album.
Furthermore, pretty much every plot point in Harry Potter is motivated by death. Voldemort is obsessed with cheating death, Harry gains special powers when his parents are killed in front of him, Snape's entire life revolves around his love for a dead woman, and the absolute bloodbath that is the final book in the series sees the deaths of a bunch of the characters (and creates at least one brand-new magical orphan). Seriously, the dust jacket for the Harry Potter series might as well be shreds of the tattered, bone-resin cowl of the specter of Death itself.
Now, obviously, J.K. Rowling picked up the pieces of her life and went on to make all of the dollars in the known Universe. But she's been candid about regretting not telling her mom about her early work on Harry Potter while, at the same time, stating that had her mother survived, Harry Potter as we know it probably wouldn't exist (and The Boxcar Children wouldn't have turned to a life of copper theft and buying K-2 Spice behind a gas station).
Every Book Roald Dahl Wrote Is About His Own Tragic Life
Roald Dahl's books are pretty strange. The title character from James And The Giant Peach (James, not the peach) lives the perfect life until the age of 4, at which point his parents are inexplicably eaten by an escaped rhinoceros and he's sent to live with an abusive aunt. The kid in The Witches begins the story with a pair of dead parents. Matilda's parents are alive but terrible, and her school's headmistress locks misbehaving children in iron maidens and throws them out of windows, because that was apparently part of British curriculum.
"Me best is 75 meters."
But Dahl was just following the classic advice of writing what you know, which in his case happened to be misery and death. When he was 3 his sister died, and then a few weeks later his dad bounced off the planet too. His mother then sent him to a boarding school that featured regular canings and a dictatorial headmaster who once confiscated the food care packages of every boy because they wouldn't turn in their friend for a minor prank, among other hellish experiences. Dahl probably just assumed that dead parents and draconian schoolmasters were experiences all the children of the world shared.
After fracturing his skull in a crash while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Dahl got married and had five kids, including a son who suffered a massive brain injury after being struck by a taxi and a daughter who died at 7 (the same age Dahl's sister was when she died), and his wife had three strokes while pregnant with another daughter. Clearly, there was no man in the United Kingdom better suited to make a career out of writing books for children.
"The snozzberries actually taste like the cold void of human despair."
According to one of his other children, Dahl was overwhelmed by all the somber misfortune in his life and decided to take it out on his 8-year-old daughter, which he did by giving her wine and Quaaludes to calm her fits, a treatment he would administer after screaming, "Why can't you be like [your dead sister]?"
"You keep giving me that stuff, I will be."
Later, when she was a teenager struggling with mental illness while in a, um, boarding school, Dahl offered such gentle reassurances as, "You're not like normal people," and telling her that psychiatrists are useless quacks. It turns out that while war, dead parents, and abusive teachers may allow you to write strong, independent, and inspiring heroes, they also apparently turn you into kind of a shitty dad.
The Wind In The Willows Is About The Author's Spoiled, Suicidal Son
The Wind In The Willows is the timeless tale of a drunk frog-man named Mr. Toad and his friends, Mole and Rat, as they go on adventures in the Wild Wood. Judging by that sentence alone, it is easily one of the most British stories ever written.
It was like Redwall with firearms.
At first, the origins of Wind In The Willows seem downright adorable. Kenneth Grahame had a son, Alastair, and the characters came out of bedtime stories Grahame made up for him. He refined them over the years, even sending Alastair letters with the latest tales when Grahame was away from home. It's an incredibly charming piece of literary history, provided you stop reading right now, close the browser, and go on living the rest of your life.
Alastair was born with health problems, but his parents insisted that he was a genius and obsessed over him, a parenting dynamic that usually turns out about as well as having a wedding for your dogs. It's been speculated that the character of Mr. Toad was based on Alastair, which seems like a touching tribute until you remember that Mr. Toad, while kind and intelligent, is also a spoiled and impulsive brat who's wasting his late father's fortune on stupid hobbies.
Look at this asshole. Did he really need to blow money on that bandana?
That's harsh, but it didn't come out of nowhere, considering that Alastair had developed the habit of lying in front of cars and forcing them to squeal to a halt. He had also started insisting that he be called Robinson, which seems like a harmless bit of youthful rebellion until you learn that a political extremist by the same name tried to murder Grahame for running a bank. So, to recap, Grahame's son adopted the name of a man who tried to kill Grahame and would cause car accidents for fun.
"That's what you get for not writing a satisfactory resolution to Mr. Toad's jailbreak story, Not-Dad."
Alastair eventually began to resent his father's stories, and Grahame stopped signing his name to the letters he wrote to Alastair because "he could not find himself capable of affection to a complete stranger," according to his biographer. Although, continuing to write fanciful stories about stuffy British rodents was apparently something he could continue doing, and The Wind In The Willows was eventually published to incredible commercial success. And Alastair? At the age of 20, he laid down across a railway and allowed himself to be decapitated by an oncoming train.
Well, uh, all the other Willows characters had cute origins, right? Like the mild-mannered, lovable Mole? Yeah, turns out Grahame rescued a mole that was being attacked by a bird in his garden, only for the mole to escape and be beaten to death by his housekeeper, because everything Grahame touched turned to cosmic shit, like some kind of dime-store King Midas.
His mustache probably caught on fire every time he tried to groom it.
Charlotte's Web Is Based on E.B. White's Obsession With Spiders
Charlotte's Web is a classic children's story about a fucking spider and a pig obsessed with the ticking clock of his own mortality. Maybe E.B. White was trying to send a message about how it's what's on the inside that counts, or maybe he was trying to create a book that would stand out from the rest of the market. Or maybe he had a consuming obsession with spiders. Yeah, it's that last one.
This was pre-Internet, though, so he had to draw his own hentai.
You see, White owned a barn, and one morning he spotted a spider in it. Rather than scream, burn the entire building to the ground, and rebuild anew atop the ashes like a sane person, over the next few weeks he kept an eye on the spider and its bulging egg sac. When fall rolled around and the spider vanished, White decided that the babies didn't deserve to grow up without a mother. So he carefully boxed up the egg sac and took it with him when he moved to New York City for work. A few weeks later the eggs hatched, and White delighted in watching the tiny little spiderlings scurry all about, because something in his mind had turned frozen and black. He set the spiders free in his home for two weeks, at which point his maid politely informed him that she wasn't getting paid enough to maintain a cabinet of horrors. White presumably set the spiders free in the streets of New York, where they turned around and scuttled right back into his home, because that's what spiders do.
And thus began a lifelong fascination for the author. White researched spiders meticulously and even wrote his wife a poem in which he pretended to be a spider, which is generally something you find pasted into a flesh notebook with letters clipped out from various newspapers.
Roses are red
My legs number eight
If you're reading this poem
It's already too late
Where The Wild Things Are Is About Maurice Sendak's Frightening Home Life
Where The Wild Things Are, the universally beloved children's book based on a 2009 Spike Jonze movie, is about a boy who goes on a fantastic journey after he's sent to his room without dinner for being a shithead.
"I'm not Hans Christian Andersen. Nobody's gonna make a statue in the park with a lot
of scrambling kids climbing up me." -The author
The titular Wild Things were inspired by author Maurice Sendak's extended family, as his aunts and uncles had a tendency to visit his childhood home and pinch his cheeks until they turned as red as Bill Clinton's gin blossoms. The experience was traumatizing for young Sendak -- he describes his relatives as "all crazy -- crazy faces and wild eyes," which suggests that he probably wasn't asked to speak at their funerals. He later came to understand that they were first-generation Polish immigrants who had just escaped from a 1930s Europe in which things weren't looking so hot for them, but it's hard to have an appreciation for the complexities of international politics when you're a kid frightened of his Olde Country relatives.
But it's not just Polish relatives who caused problems -- Sendak insists that he wouldn't have produced the work that he did if his home life hadn't been chaotic. His mother was exiled to America from Poland on her 16th birthday for the crime of having multiple sexual partners, while on the day of Sendak's bar mitzvah, his father learned that his entire family back in Poland had been killed. Sendak describes his parents as "nuts," because if your folks aren't a little crazy, you probably don't grow up to make books that, in his own words, "refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."
"The Wild Things are actually imaginary, like Santa Claus. ... Why are you crying?"
Winnie The Pooh Is Based On A Real Bear
As we've previously discussed, Winnie The Pooh ruined the lives of its creator, the real Christopher Robin, and the book's illustrator, because that book was apparently a goddamn pestilence. But did you know that the titular Winnie was a real bear? Well, guess what? He goddamned was.
"CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!"
The year was 1914, and Germany was being uppity again. Canadian soldier Harry Colebourn was traveling across Canada to board a ship to England, when he made the completely understandable decision to buy a bear cub, as explained in an entry from Colebourn's personal diary, which reads "Left Port Arthur 7 a.m. In train all day. Bought bear $20." That is not a joke.
"Bear ate old lady arm. Lot of blood. Happens."
Colebourn named the bear Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and Winnie became his regiment's unofficial mascot. Winnie even slept under Colebourn's bed, presumably because Colebourn harbored a lifelong fear of monsters. But when it came time for Colebourn to ship off to the trenches of France, he was worried that Winnie would be in danger, because she was still a cub and was much too small to knock any dastardly Germans' heads from their shoulders. So he donated her to the London Zoo, who put her in an exhibit that allowed children to stroll in and play with her, because people in the early 20th century didn't give a single fuck about anything. The kids were safe, though, because Winnie had been raised in captivity by the hunter who had killed her mother.
Winnie became a popular attraction -- a certain little boy named Christopher Robin, the son of author A.A. Milne, was especially fond of her.
She probably liked him more than the donkey he kept trying to nail a fake tail to did.
Christopher named his stuffed bear after Winnie, which in turn became the inspiration for Milne's whimsical stories about the Hundred Acre Wood, which Walt Disney Studios would heroically pretend they invented 40 years later.
Peter Pan Is Based On The Dead Brother J.M. Barrie Tried To Impersonate
This might shock you, but there's a disturbing backstory to the tale of a flying man-child who takes actual children on violent adventures. And that's because Peter Pan's author, J.M. Barrie, knew firsthand both the appeal and the tragedy of staying young forever.
Barrie was the ninth of 10 children and, when he was 6, his older brother David drowned in an ice skating accident. David was their mother's favorite child, so in order to help her get over the loss, Barrie would pretend to be David, which would typically end in his mother's unrestrained disappointment. As you might imagine, this does wonders for a child's self-esteem.
Clearly, shitty impressions are not the sole domain of bad '80s standup and Frank Caliendo.
Because even the best ideas need workshopping, Barrie kept up the ruse by dressing in David's clothes and adopting his dead brother's habit of whistling, which we're certain was in no way haunting. This seemed to help, but you can't pretend to be your dead 13-year-old brother forever, and ultimately his mother was forced to take comfort in the fact that, in a way, David was a boy who would always be young and would never leave her. Throw in some pirates and fairy dust and boom, you've got a whimsical adventure.
But wait, it gets sadder and stranger! Barrie didn't finally come up with the story for Peter Pan until years later, when he was stuck in a loveless marriage with no children. So, he did what any lonely man would do -- he befriended another family's children and wrote Peter Pan to entertain them. Several of the characters, including Peter himself, were named after his surrogate children, much to their delight.
None of them were cool enough to inspire Rufio.
He eventually became their guardian when their parents died, an honor that Barrie took great pride in, and three-fifths of his inherited children died untimely deaths. Basically, J.M. Barrie had the childhood of a Dickensian street urchin and the adulthood of a cursed Egyptologist, and it resulted in a story that Hollywood cannot stop reimagining.
What other children's entertainment could possibly have dark backstories? Is what you're not asking, but we're going to tell you anyway. See how four famous, fun-loving turtles started out as violent killers in 7 Shockingly Dark Origins Of Lovable Children's Characters. Or check out 5 Terrifying Origin Stories Behind Popular Children's Songs and learn why we need to stop kids from playing London Bridge.
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