Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Picture Books With Surprise Endings & Dark Humor

I have found that the kids and I really enjoy humorous books in storytime, and especially those that have endings with a surprise twist.  I decided to put a list of such books together, and as I did, I realized that several of my favorites happened to employ dark humor.  So I decided to start with them, and then put together a list of lighter books that end with a twist in a later post.

When using these books, I would caution you to really know your audience first, especially if they are preschoolers.  Some of the younger kids might be too sensitive for the darker humor, or just might not get it.  But older kids almost always love them!  That being said, I have successfully used at least a couple of these with younger kids.

Hungry Hen by Richard Waring and Caroline Jayne Church. 2001. Harper-Collins. 32 pages. Ages 3-6.

Every day the hungry fox watches the little chicken eat, and the more she eats the bigger she gets.  He bides his time until finally she is big enough to eat, then he makes his move, with surprising results!

Kids will love the surprise ending in which predator unexpectedly becomes prey.

Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. 2005. Atheneum/Anne Schwarts Books. 32 pages. Ages 4-8. 

This is the story of a tadpole and caterpillar that fall in love and promise not to change. But, they find they can't stop mother nature as the tadpole gradually develops into a frog, and the caterpillar disappears.  In the end, Frog is left wondering whatever happened to his first love, as he sits on a lily pad digesting the butterfly he just ate.

If you're looking for a suprise/twist ending, this is definitely it, but the humor is a really dark, even for me!  Older kids and adults would find this funny, but some younger children might find it upsetting.  I would be hesitant to use it in a preschool storytime.  I think the difference between this and some of the other books with dark humor where character get eaten is that the two characters were friends and in love in the beginning.

Rotten and Rascal: The Two Terrible Pterosaur Twins by Paul Geraghty. 2006. Barron's Educational Series. 32 pages. Ages 4-7.

Rotten and Rascal are twin pterosaurs who argue about everything. All. The. Time. The other dinosaurs get tired of the hullabaloo, and Rex decides to settle their arguing once and for all.  He asks them which one is the tastiest, the juiciest, and the crunchiest, and they are so busy arguing that they don't realize what he is up to.  And in case you were wondering, they tasted exactly the same!

This is just the right amount of dark humor, with the victims being unsympathetic and ultimately bringing their misfortune upon themselves.  This story also has lots of fun alliteration and many new vocabulary words. It is always fun to see how long it takes the audience to figure out what happened in the end; you can almost see the little wheels turning in their heads!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. 2011. Candlewick Press. 40 pages. Ages 4-8.

The bear's hat is missing, and goes around politely asking the other animals if they've seen it, with no luck. He is just about to give up when the deer says something that sparks his memory.  Woe to the one who dared deceive the bear and steal his hat!

This is an award-winning story with just enough dark humor, and again, with an unsympathetic character who brings the consequences upon himself.  The ending is not clearly spelled out, so again, it is fun to see how the audience processes it and what they think happened, and it leaves room for the sensitive child to interpret the ending in a less dark way.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. 2012. Candlewick. 40 pages. Ages 4-8.  Caldecott Medal winner.

In Klassen's second award-winner, a little fish is swimming along, bragging about taking the hat he is wearing and sure that he will never be caught by it's rightful owner. However, the other sea creatures subtly give him away, and in the end we see a large fish swimming back wearing the hat.

That Is NOT A Good Idea! by Mo Willems. 2013. Balzer + Bray. 48 pages. Ages 4-8.

This story starts out with the feel of a folk tale: one day a very hungry fox meets a plump goose, and one of them tricks the other one into becoming their dinner. But, the victim is not who the audience is expecting!

Again, a little dark humor at the expense of a less-than-sympathetic character, this time a villainous fox up to no good. But to be fair, the little goslings tried to warn him...

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat. 2013. Chronicle Books. 40 pages. Ages 5-8.

The lion, the shark, and the timber wolf are tired of everyone hurting their feelings by talking about them and thinking the worst of them. They get together and decide to try being vegetarian, but that didn't work. Disguises didn't work, either. Finally they invite the wisest carnivore of all to speak to the group. The wise owl advised them to embrace being carnivores. They weren't bad; eating meat is just what they do. The wise old owl was brilliant......and delicious!

Little Red by Bethan Woollvin. April 1, 2016. Peachtree Publishers. 32 pages. Ages 4-8.

This is a re-telling of the classic folk tale, Little Red Riding Hood.  But in this version, Red is a very smart, capable young lady who can take care of herself and doesn't need any woodsman to save her.

This is a slight twist on the original tale, a little darker than the sanitized modern version. Kids would probably appreciate it more if they are already familiar with a previous version, but will probably enjoy it either way. The illustrations are a little too heavily stylized for my taste, and the ending is fairly subtle so give them time to process it and figure it out.

A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins. March 15, 2016. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Ages 4-8.

The story starts off with a lion and several other animals, which keep disappearing one at a time as each page is turned, frustrating the narrator. At first, the reader suspects the lion has eaten them, but surprise, they were just sneaking off to put together a surprise party for the lion. But wait, that's not the end!

This is a truly tricky story that goes from dark to light, and dark again with one plot twist after another! This would be great for kindergarten and school-aged kids, younger kids might not be able to follow all the twists or may find it too dark.

Here are a few others suggested by some other great youth services professionals at Storytime Underground:

Wolves by Emily Gravett. 2006. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Ages 4-8.

A rabbit goes to the library, and selects a book about wolves to read. As he reads, the illustrations become more menacing. He is so engrossed in his book, he does not realize he is walking up the back of a large wolf! He finally realizes his predicament when he is coincidentally on the page that describes the wolf's diet: "...large prey such as deer, bison, and moose. They also enjoy smaller mammals, like beavers, voles, and...."  Then when you turn the page, all that is left is the scratched and chewed book cover, and a torn piece of paper that completes the sentence "...rabbits."

This is a cleverly told story that might be over the heads of younger readers, but school-aged kids would enjoy.  There is also an "alternate ending for sensitive readers" in which the wolf is a vegetarian and they become fast friends, but that is all part of the humor as well.

Barnacle Is BORED by Jonathan Fenske. May 10, 2016.  Scholastic, Inc. 40 pages. Ages 3-5.

Barnacle is very bored.  He is stuck to the bottom of the pier and never goes anywhere or does anything.  The tide comes in, the tide goes out.  The sun comes up, the sun goes down. He spies a pretty rainbow spotted fish, and is envious of all the fun he images the fish has. Until he sees the price the fish pays for his free-swimming lifestyle.

This is a really cute book with bright, cartoon-y illustrations, and short, simple text told mostly in speech bubbles. It is funny, and the ending is predictable.  Funny, only slightly dark, and a good opportunity to talk about appreciating what you have and not being envious of others, because you never really know what hardships they may have to deal with.

Beware Of The Frog by William Bee. 2008. Candlewick. 48 pages. Ages 3-7.

Sweet old Mrs. Collywobbles lives on the edge of a dark, scary forest, full of goblins, trolls, and ogres! But, her guard frog protects her, gobbling up any trespassers. One day, Mrs. Collywobbles gives her frog a kiss of gratitude, which turns her into a frog as well! And she doesn't like that one bit, and quickly shows her displeasure.

I like the story of this one, but I don't particularly care for the illustration style, and I think it's too long for the lower end of the target age range.

Mr. Wolf's Pancakes by Jan Fearnley. 1999. Tiger Tales. 32 pages. Ages 4-8. (There is a later paperback edition with a different cover).

Mr. Wolf is in the mood for pancakes, and decides to make some. But, he is having a little trouble with planning, shopping, and cooking, and asks his neighbors (all familiar folk tale and nursery rhyme characters) for help, but they all rudely refuse. 

He manages to figure it all out on his own, but his unhelpful neighbors rudely demand he give them pancakes. He has no choice but to invite them into his kitchen, where they pay for their rudeness!

This story is delightfully dark, and drives home the importance of being helpful, polite, and using good manners!

Mr. Wolf and the Three Bears by Jan Fearnley. 2002. Harcourt Children's Books. 32 pages. Ages 3-7.

It is Baby Bear's birthday and Mr. Wolf and Grandma spend all day baking treats and preparing a party.  But, when the Bear family shows up, Goldilocks crashes the party, barging in without being invited. She is rude and obnoxious to everyone and ruins the party. But after a game of hide-and-seek, Grandma surprises everyone with a wonderful, freshly baked pie.  And Goldilocks is nowhere to be found.

Again, this book teaches a lesson in manners, in a wickedly dark and funny way, but it might be just a little too much for 3-4 year olds, and I would skew the recommended age range up slightly, to ages 4-8 or even 5-8.

Pardon Me! by Daniel Miyares. 2014. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Ages 4-8.

A little bird finds a nice spot to rest in the middle of the marsh. Soon he is joined by a larger bird, a frog, and a turtle, and finds his perch rather crowded. A fox paddles out on a log and tries to warn them, "Pardon me, but you're sitting on a...," but the frustrated little bird interrupts, yelling at him to go away and scaring all the other animals off. He should have let the fox finish what he was saying.....

While this book is 40 pages, it has very little text, so it is not too long for younger readers, and I don't think many would find it too dark. A good lesson in sharing and not interrupting, though!

Max the Brave by Ed Vere. 2015. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.  32 pages. Ages 3-6.

Max the Brave is a fearless kitten who is on a quest to chase mice. Unfortunately, he doesn't know what a mouse is, so the mouse is able to trick him into thinking he is a monster, and the monster is a mouse. Max bravely tries to wake the "mouse" so he can chase him, and ends up getting gobbled up! But, fortunately the monster is apparently allergic to cats and sneezes him back out. Max decided he's not so brave after all.

This book barely qualifies as dark, since Max is only in the monster's belly for a moment, and survives relatively unscathed. This would be a good book to test the waters with a child or group to see how they handle darker humor.

Melissa's Octopus and Other Unsuitable Pets by Charlotte Voake. 2015. Candlewick. 32 pages. Ages 3-7.

This book shows several unusual pets, and demonstrates why they are generally unsuitable, such as an octopus, giraffe, chameleon, and ending with the most unsuitable of all, the crocodile.

I wish I'd had this book when I did my "Unusual Pets" storytime, but we had not gotten it yet. It is more silly than dark, and the ending has a couple of twists, though really, it shouldn't be that suprising that a crocodile might eat someone, should it? A fun book, and not too dark at all.

If you know of any other good picture books with dark humor and surprise endings, feel free to add them in the comments! Embrace your dark and twisty side and enjoy! I'll post a list of lighter books that end with a twist soon.


  1. You left off one title that I think of as a classic in the "surprise ending" genre: Bark, George! That one is always received enthusiastically in my storytimes.

    1. I was going to include that one in the next list of lighter books that end with a twist. For some reason, I've never thought of that book as being dark, I guess because it's a cute little puppy and the animals emerge unharmed, so I assume the vet will, too ;)

  2. How about Whatever, by William Bee?