On my bookshelf sits a copy of Struwwelpeter, one of the most disturbing books for children ever put in print. It’s been around since 1845, first published in Germany, and features illustrated rhymes that stress the terrible consequences of bad behavior. There’s the story of Harriet, who burns to death while playing with matches; and Augustus, consigned to an early grave after refusing to eat his dinner night after night.
The story that truly horrified me as a child, however, was that of “Little Suck-a-Thumb.” Young Conrad is a chronic thumb sucker. One day his mother goes off to market and tells him before leaving, “Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away. The great tall tailor always comes to little boys who suck their thumbs.” The tailor in question is “The Great, Long, Red-Legged Scissor Man,” who likes to cut children’s thumbs with his giant scissors. You can guess what happens to Conrad while his mother’s out:
It’s funny that today we should worry about the impact of violent videos games and movies on young people when, for generations, kids have been raised on tales of murder and mutilation. Perhaps I’ll start using the book to terrorize my kids at bedtime when they misbehave.