But then, one summer, everything changed! 5 offbeat books from my childhood

Friday is usually “What’s for Supper?” day, but this week we had hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, tuna noodle, and pepperoncini beef sandwiches for supper, and no end of chips and carrot sticks. We had good reasons for eating cheap and easy all week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write 900 words about it.

Instead, just for fun, let’s talk about odd books we read as kids. Anybody remember these?

The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken (1980)


Joan Aiken’s more popular books are the funny and thrilling Wolves Chronicles (a loosely-connected historical fiction adventure series set mostly in an alternate London where James II was not deposed), many featuring the wonderful Dido Twite; and the hilarious Arabel and Mortimer series, about a sensible little girl and her almost-coherent pet raven; but Aiken also wrote several novels about the supernatural. One of these, The Shadow Guests is creepy, and fairly sad, but with a satisfying finish. An Australian teenage boy is sent off to live with a distant relative after his mother and her more-favored son apparently commit suicide together. Already lonely and upset, he begins to see ghosts — and they may have a particular message for him. Very dramatic and captivating. Aiken’s characters are always so well conceived and fleshed out and sympathetic. For middle school and up.


Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (1963, so not technically from my childhood, but I did read it then)


Wilson Gage is the pen name of the prolific Mary Q. Steele, which sounds like even more of a pen name. A glum and shy girl has to spend the summer with a cousin she doesn’t like. They accidentally magically bring a mop to life — a mop who looks and acts disconcertingly like a bossy former teacher. The mop takes over their life, and their summer gets much harder, and much more fun, than they expected. Here’s a bunch of people who also remember this strange and charming book with fondness.  It’s one of those books where something ridiculous and unlikely happens, and the characters know it’s ridiculous and unlikely, and they have to figure out how to deal with it like real people. For grade 3 and up.


Peter Graves by William Pène du Bois (1950)


The author is much better known for the offbeat fantasy The Twenty-One Balloons, but I think Peter Graves is the better book. A rowdy teenager, while showing off for his friends, accidentally destroys the home of an eccentric old inventor who lives on the outskirts of town. To help repay him, the boy goes on a mission to help him market an amazing but volatile substance he has invented. It turns out to be harder than it looks. The way I remember it, this story doesn’t really have a theme or a point; it’s just super interesting and funny and weird, and very much in tune with a real child’s imagination. For grade 4 and up.


Singularity by William Sleator (1985)


I honestly can’t remember if this book is any good or not. It centers on twin boys who are not alike and who do not get along. One summer, the smaller, less confident twin discovers something that may finally give him a leg up, but he’ll have to pay a horrible price. There was more to the plot — I think there was a monster? — but the unforgettable part is the scene where he’s deciding whether or not to go through with it. Anyone remember this book? Was it any good, or just weird? For middle school and up.


Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide (1982)


Heide is best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. I’m only mentioning this book because I read it five billion times, hating it every time. Why do kids do this to themselves? I don’t know. The hero is an irritable TV- and candy-obsessed kid named Jonah B. Krock who is trying to finagle his way into a boarding school so as to escape his health-obsessed parents. His life becomes intertwined with his repulsive neighbor, who falls under the illusion that Jonah has an obsession with bananas. But at the end, there is a twist! This is such an 80’s book. It’s basically a lame and pointless joke spun out to book length for no reason at all. Naturally, there is a sequel.


Finally, a book that doesn’t fit in with the rest of these books at all, but maybe you can help me find it! It’s a picture book, with no words at all. The pages are cut into three or four horizontal strips. By opening the cut-up pages into different combinations, you can make all kinds of odd scenes. They were very cleverly drawn so that every combination worked. I remember it being in a hyper realistic style, or maybe sort of surrealist, like Chris Van Allsburg or David Wiesner. I feel like there were lots of umbrellas involved, and also factories and maybe giant lollipops. Anybody have any clue?


Happy Friday!

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14 thoughts on “But then, one summer, everything changed! 5 offbeat books from my childhood”

  1. I realize I’m over a year late to the party, but Singularity is the only one of those I’ve read, though I couldn’t remember the name and wondered how I would ever find it again. I think of it not-rarely. Perhaps because one of my siblings is obsessed with a YouTube series about eating old and/or exotic MREs. I remember most of the plot, I think, but not the unforgettable decision point. I remember liking it, but I don’t think I had very good taste at the age I read it.

    Now, does anyone remember a book about some kind of war with school children on one side and teachers/administrators (and maybe parents?) on the other? There was an ape-girl or chimpanzee-girl on the kid side, and a hyper-intelligent, highly venomous ant on the adults’ side. They ended up settling their differences through some kind of tournament which included riding lawn mowers and a battle of champions in which the adults cheated. I do not remember how the whole thing was resolved or what started the fight in the first place.

  2. We had one called, I think, “The Bump in the Night.” It was about a tinker who encountered a dismembered ghost as each body part fell down a chimney. So odd for a children’s picture book.
    I’ve read “Treehorn” but not “Banana Twist.” When I was a kid we loved Heide’s “God and Me” about all the things you can’t see but are there (the flower in the seed, the garden around the bend in the road, yesterday).

  3. I’m still trying to find an Ernie-and-Bert (of Sesame Street fame) book in which Ernie calls various things by slightly wrong names, Bert corrects him, Ernie invariably replies with “No, Bert; *that * situation/thing is called X [another wrong word]. The round starts again, and runs through about 7 or 8 words/wrong words.

    But the best part about it is that it ends where it began! I think it begins with Ernie telling Bert he likes the noise the water makes when it goes down the sink.
    “Gurgle?” responds Bert.
    “No, no, Bert! That’s *giggle*!”
    “No, Ernie. -Giggle- is when you laugh at something.”

    And somehow the last word Bert uses in correcting Ernie is “giggle,” ….or something like that. There’s also a cowboy hat in there somewhere…maybe “galleon” for “gallon”?

    ANYONE know where I can find this book? My mom and I can’t remember the title, but have been seeking it after we lost ours. I thought it was a Little Golden Book, but haven’t had any luck looking through collections of them for this one.

    Another author I loved reading as a child is Sydney Taylor — her “All-Of-A-Kind Family” books.

  4. Oh, yeah, I remember this book!

    There was also one about a girl who was somehow part sea creature, or something. Her first word was “octopus,” and she drinks salt water. her father is a garbage man. Do you remember this one?

    1. That one I do not remember. Now I’m off to Google. After posting my comment I bit the bullet and apparently The Girl With The Silver Eyes is still in print–and very popular, seeing as how the latest reprint was 2011. I kind of want to see if my library has it.

  5. When I was a kid my favorite book, which I reread for almost two years (in-between reading other things), was “The Girl With the Silver Eyes.” The main character, was (quite obviously) a girl with silver eyes, who had a single mom, and who could make things move with her mind. Naturally she was a bit of an outcast, but could mentally connect with other kids like her, who were all products of some kind of medical testing or drug that their mothers had been exposed to while pregnant with them. I just loved how she got back at the people who treated her rudely. I had revenge fantasies as a kid. I have never Googled this book, because a part of me is afraid I imagined the whole thing, even though I have memories of holding and reading the book. Weird. Nobody has ever mentioned this book to me, so I wonder if I was the only one who ever read it?

    1. “Nobody has ever mentioned this book to me, so I wonder if I was the only one who ever read it?”
      That is what I always wonder about the song “Ponderous.” I seem to be the only person who ever heard it.

    2. I’ve never read that one, but it sounds right up there with “The Girl Who Could Fly” and “The Silver Rose”. Actually it might’ve been “Jane or-some-other-girl’s-name and the Silver Rose” But I know that the flower was in the title. Anywho, both are along those lines of supernatural kids freeing themselves from the bad guys. All great!

    3. I loved the All-of-a-Kind books! And I recently found out there was a volume I’d never heard of called Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family. And thanks to online booksellers, I now have a copy!

  6. Your final request made me laugh. My siblings and I had the tape of a Peter Pan parody we knew by heart but lost. Looked for it for years. And then we discovered there was a Facebook group of other Peter Pan Tape Deprived French People. Got the precious recording, listened to it with all our spouses.
    Needless to say, they didn’t get it. At all.

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