I came across this post today on Flavorwire called “10 of the Most Terrifying Children’s Books from Around the World.” And yes, they all look pretty terrifying (we even have a copy of Number 10 on our kids’ bookshelf, but it seldom gets pulled out because it’s so damn creepy).
But they forgot one. Australia’s own Gumnut Babies.
The Gumnut Babies were created by a British-born author, May Gibbs. May’s family emigrated to Australia in the late 1800’s, and the first of her many Gumnut Babies books was published in 1916. From what I can gather, the Gumnut Babies are a national icon – I say “from what I can gather” because I grew up in New Zealand, where the Gumnut Babies passed me by. The first good look I got at one of these books was after our family, like May’s, emigrated to Australia.
The Gumnut Babies are meant to be cute, but there’s something about them that I find extraordinarily creepy. I don’t think it’s the babies themselves – after all, who could find anything menacing in their chubby-limbed nakedness? I think it’s their extreme vulnerability that makes me uneasy. On the other hand, their arch-nemeses the Banksia men are undeniably menacing. Especially when running away carrying a naked baby upside down by its ankles.
There was one illustration in particular that I found particularly disturbing. It shows the Gumnut Babies nonchalantly sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, while in an examination room above them, a baby lies flat on its back, appearing to be skewered to a table by a giant insect dentist that looms over the poor little open-mouthed child.
Australia. Where even much-loved children’s book illustrations haunt your dreams.