13 Passages from Children's Literature that are More Dreadful and Shocking Than They May First Appear

10/16/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

From time to time people say to me, "Lemony Snicket, you write dreadful and shocking books. What sort of writing do you find dreadful and shocking yourself?"

My reply to them is always the same: "Please be quiet, I'm trying to read." Nevertheless, I occasionally stumble upon a dreadful and/or shocking passage of children's literature that may have passed unnoticed by other readers with less investigative or hysterical temperaments. I am grateful to the Huffington Post for allowing me to point out these disturbing passages so that the general public can be as flushed and sputtering as I am.

1. "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. --E.B. White, "Charlotte's Web"

"What happens in the barnyard haunts the bedroom and the grave," said Freud, or maybe it was Old Macdonald. In any case, Fern's innocent inquiry is so fraught with violence and parental treachery that it surely ranks with one of the most shivery opening sentences in all of literature, along with "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth" and "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins," both of which it resembles.

2. "Goodnight noises, everywhere." --Margaret Wise Brown, "Goodnight Moon"

Just when Ms. Brown has gotten us all drowsy and cozy, she murmurs this unnerving sentence, causing all sensible readers to turn all the lights on and check under the bed, inside the closet and out on the ledge outside the window. The rabbit who has been sitting in the corner knitting all this time, inexplicably and suspiciously described as an "old lady," should also be closely examined.

3. "You have it for tonight, darling," whispered Jane, and she tucked him in just as Mary Poppins used to do." --P.L. Travers, "Mary Poppins"

A stern governess quits and the family descends into chaos. The closing scene of this classic tale of British repression has Jane calling her brother "darling" and attempting to replace the departed nanny's role in a dark nursery. What Jane should have tonight are boundaries; her brother, meanwhile, needs a room of his own.

4. "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." --Margery Williams, "The Velveteen Rabbit"

As if the notion of a "Skin Horse" is not disturbing enough, the philosophy that one doesn't become real until one is loved by a child is a kick in the shins to childless adults everywhere, who previously were happy staying up late with gimlets.

5. "We will have to shut you up where you can't do any more harm." They took him away and shut him in prison. [...] at last, away they went to the ZOO! What a nice place for George to live!" Margaret and H.A. Rey, "Curious George"

The difference between prison and a zoo, of course, is the difference between six and half a dozen, but tell that to the merry proponents of abduction and brainwashing responsible for torturing an innocent monkey. The horror in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is no match for the shiny imperialism of the Man in the Yellow Hat.

6. "Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." --Harper Lee, "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Here we have the noble but insufferable Atticus Finch, taking a break from defending a black man terrorized by the white community to inform us that one bird is perfectly OK to slaughter, but not another one. It's the most breathtaking display of hypocrisy since they printed "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree" on paper.

7. "And then they were all at the top and did see. It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness." --C.S. Lewis, "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe"

Just as a kidnapping automatically makes a book more interesting [editor's note: Mr. Snicket's new book "When Did You See Her Last?," containing at least two kidnappings, has just been published], the arrival of Father Christmas can turn a ripping yarn into a crashing bore. Putting the Deus in Deus ex Machina, Mr. Christmas gives Peter, Susan and Lucy everything they need to save the day and further feeds rumors about Miriam, Yosef and Rebekah wandering Narnia for forty years without respite.

8. "I am not your mother. I am a dog." --P.D. Eastman, "Are You My Mother?"

What, pray tell, is Mr. Eastman telling us? That ugly women cannot bear children? I am writing a furious letter to Naomi Wolf forthwith.

9. "I may be a silly," Mr. Bear answered, "but I know when a naughty little girl needs a spanking." --Dare Wright, "The Lonely Doll"

Corporeal punishment is one thing, but this disheartening turn of plot is unnervingly and explicitly photo-illustrated, giving a suggestive tinge to this otherwise wholesome story of a lonely doll who ends up cohabitating with two bears who turn up unexpectedly to teach her vandalism and discipline. I cannot imagine why I keep reading such a thing, over and over and over and over again.

10. "Say!
In the dark?
Here in the dark!
Would you, could you, in the dark?"
― Dr. Seuss, "Green Eggs and Ham"

One cannot eat in the dark, so one can only assume that the good doctor is turning to decadent allegory, in which the eggs and the ham are not foreign foodstuffs but something else, previously untried, that works better with the lights off. "It's fun to have fun," says another Seuss creation, after breaking into the home of two latchkey children, "but you have to know how."

11. "When someone blushes, doesn't that mean 'yes'?"--Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince"

No, it certainly does not, your highness. And stop showing me that drawing with the bulge in it.

12. "Well, said the Cock, "I don't know what you are doing here." --Aesop, "Fables"

The cock has taken the words right out of my mouth. One must always be very careful when there are Greeks about, as one never knows what they are sneakily inserting.

13. "Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness. Patty waited for this to happen before she left the bathroom." --Jonathan Franzen, "Freedom"

I have just learned that this is not, in fact, from a work of children's literature but from a recent novel by a highly-acclaimed author. I suppose that could excuse such disturbing and shocking nonsense.