Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are first roared its terrible roars on this day in 1963. Today marks the beloved book’s 50th anniversary. Sendak’s tale about a young boy whose imagination transports him to a land full of “wild things” was an early, rare portrait of the dark emotions children learn to cope with. “If I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are, impolitely, lovingly… they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what the right way is,” Sendak said of the book in a 2004 interview. The many monsters in children’s literature have helped young readers face their fears, empowering them — and in some cases, frightening them to tears. We love them all, so we’ve selected 13 of the greatest monsters featured in children’s books. Tell us your favorites, below.
“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,” mentioned in a nonsense poem in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, was first brought to life by John Tenniel’s famous illustration. The creature, whose “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch,” resembled a chimera, and had the body of a dragon and a catfish-like head. Carroll’s description of the man-eating beast painted a colorful, but grotesque picture of the creature’s movements and sounds. We don’t want to run into anything in the woods that “whiffles” and “burbles.”
The Grinch is a jerk, plain and simple. His heart may be “two sizes too small,” but the cave-dwelling creep who hates the holidays (ok, we can sometimes relate) derives pleasure from the misery of others. He eventually becomes a kinder, gentler monster, but we find it hard to forgive him — if only for being so rotten to his poor dog, Max.
The Monroe family rescued a bunny that was abandoned in a movie theater, which happened to be playing Dracula at the time. They nicknamed him Bunnicula. The vegetable juice-sucking exploits of the fanged rabbit in James Howe’s series are largely imagined by the paranoid family cat, Chester — who believes Bunnicula is really a vampire (“Today vegetables, tomorrow the world!”). Howe’s books memorably blend humor and mythical lore.
Abiyoyo is a giant as tall as a house who has long claws, slobbery teeth, matted hair, and smelly feet — but he’s a favorite monster amongst children thanks to the musical version of the fable by Pete Seeger. The story, illustrated by Michael Hays, is based on a South African lullaby and folktale, and centers on a boy and his father who are banished from their village, but redeem themselves once they hypnotize the beast terrorizing the town with music and a magic wand.
Perhaps the most existential monster on our list, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story features a mysterious, evil force known as the Nothing. The dark being draws a young warrior, Atreyu, into battle. When a parallel world known as Fantastica is ravaged by sickness and death, Atreyu must face the Nothing — and we learn that the creature is actually the embodiment of everything evil and destructive humanity has wrought upon itself. Take that, kids.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is chock-full of mythical creatures, many inspired by international folklore, but the scariest monsters in the wizarding world have to be the Dementors. The ghostly beings guard Azkaban, but pop up throughout the series, used for chilling effect. The cloaked phantoms feed on people’s fears, emotions, and memories, and employ a terrifying “kiss” that allows them to render their victims totally mindless. The Dementors were created during a time in Rowling’s life when she was struggling through a deep depression.
The Dark Family
R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series introduced a number of fantastic monsters that child protagonists bravely conquered. The eighth book in the series, The Girl Who Cried Monster, played off of the tense relationship kids sometimes have with their parents and other adults as they struggle to make their voice heard. In this case, Stine made the grown-ups in the story actual monsters — two of them (mom and dad) are revealed during a fun twist ending.
“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
The greedy, ruthless dragon of Middle-earth in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, known as Smaug, is a real hoarder. He stops at nothing to capture all the gold he can. The fire-breathing creature even took possession of an entire mountain for the treasure there. The creature was resurrected for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation and will be voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Despite its absurd name, Roald Dahl uses the mystery of the beastly Whangdoodle to build a sense of dread in several of his stories. Willy Wonka mentions saving the Oompa Loompas from a Whangdoodle in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and children are warned not to wander into the forest in The Minpins, because the Whangdoodles lurk there. The frightening figure has been a part of American folklore (and American nonsense vernacular) since the 19th century, but authors like Dahl made the Whangdoodle a literary monster to remember.
Borrowing from a Chinese folklore tale, Julia Donaldson’s story about a mouse that uses its imagination and wit to evade danger in the woods featured a hybrid creature known as the Gruffalo (half grizzly, half buffalo). The book owes a huge debt to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in language and appearance, but Axel Scheffler’s illustrations and Donaldson’s rhymes help build suspense.
The concept and inspiration behind Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There is terrifying on its own, but the author’s illustration of the story’s pivotal scene has haunted readers for decades. Sibling jealousy and resentment is manifest as a set of goblins kidnapping an infant (they replace the baby with an icy doppelgänger), which propels the older child to go “outside over there” to rescue her missing sister. Sendak was compelled to write the story after being moved by the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping case and seeing a photograph of the child’s remains in the newspaper. “You had to form a kind of fake life, to protect yourself,” he told the Paris Review. “Because you learn very quickly that parents can’t protect you. It leaves a lurking fear. You never feel safe, never believe, really, that your parents are any safer than you, or could protect you from the unknown.”
The Terrible Whatzit
Harry and the Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach contains a surprisingly poignant and empowering message, playing on our fears of abandonment and the unknown. A young boy bravely searches for his mother in his basement where he meets a double-headed monster known as a Whatzit. The long-horned beast does his terrible best, but as our protagonist grows more courageous, the Whatzit shrinks in size and is banished from the premises.
Image credit: DiePest-1912
The Black Rabbit of Inlé
The grim reaper of the rabbit world in Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down is a memorable figure that reminds us there is only one certainty in life: death. Cheery stuff.