Some of the Best Wonderfully Weird and Unusual Books for Kids

Let’s face it: a lot of children’s books tend to blend together, and sometimes you want a jolt of electricity, something very different to wake you up, to surprise and delight you. I love when a children’s book comes out of left field, and I find that these deeply unusual, one-of-a-kind children’s books tend to be some of my children’s favorites, too.

I’ve collected my favorite weird and wonderful children’s books here. All of these books are unique and packed with charisma – I consider them treasures among my collection.

The Shrinking of Treehorn, Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey [Amazon | Bookshop]

A deadpan delight about the way adults dismiss and ignore the very real concerns of children

A classic from the 1970s, The Shrinking of Treehorn is brilliantly offbeat and deadpan, a tale for children with intriguing, dark undercurrents – just as you might expect in a book illustrated by Edward Gorey. When Treehorn finds that he’s gradually shrinking, he’s understandably dismayed and perplexed… but his mother and father seem hardly to care. The most interesting thing about this book is not, in fact, that Treehorn is shrinking, but instead the bizarre and dismissive reactions of everyone around him. It’s comical and strange, of course, that no one believes him or cares, but it also feels very much like that common childhood experience: no one listens to me. Over and over again, Treehorn insists that he is shrinking and that it’s outside of his control – he’d knock it out if he could! – but in the end, it’s up to him to solve his own problem. (And the solution is wonderful.) Despite the book’s unusual tone, I’ve found that children are fascinated by the clueless, useless adults here, who walk around in an ignorant stupor. (Perhaps that part, at least, seems familiar?)

Thirteen, Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner [Amazon | Bookshop]

In a brilliant and surreal world of its own, this book tells thirteen stories simultaneously

Thirteen is unique, probably the only book you’re likely to read thirteen times back-to-back (without complaint!). Each spread here features 13 separate illustrations, and each illustration tells its own story. Focus on one for the first read-through, then go back and watch another story unfold. They’re all wonderfully weird – straight from the 70s in the best way – and often funny or mind-bendingly surreal: a ship slowly sinking, a watercolor image transforming page by page, a very strange alphabet book… What artistic inspiration this is! A true storytelling feat and a real treasure of a book.

Kat Hats, Daniel Pinkwater and Aaron Renier [Amazon | Bookshop]

A charmingly bonkers, truly original book book about cats trained to serve as hats

If you’re familiar with any of Daniel Pinkwater’s other books (The Big Orange Splot, Pickle Creature), you might have some idea of what to expect from this truly unusual and funny book. (If you’re new to Pinkwater, buckle up! It’s a ride!) In Kat Hats, Matt Katz trains cats to serve as super-fluffy, living headgear, guaranteed to keep the wearer warm even in the most perilously cold conditions. And when Chickarina the witch gets stranded on the Witch’s Spitz mountain (in the dead of winter, eating a gigantic popsicle), there’s only one cat who can rescue her from a dangerous case of brain freeze: Thermal Herman 6 7/8ths. This book won’t be for steadfastly traditional readers – it’s even more bonkers than it sounds – but the way it totally commits to its wild vision is extremely charming. (And my children immediately asked me to read it a second time.) I love this book, and I’m so happy that people are writing and illustrating truly original books like this one.

Pug Man’s 3 Wishes, Sebastian Meschenmoser [Amazon | Bookshop]

A one-of-a-kind, intensely offbeat masterpiece you’ve got to read to believe

Well, look: you’re either the type of person who laughs at the sight of a tired pug sitting on a toilet or you aren’t. But there’s more to this book than just that visual gag. Pug Man is having a terrible day — and he looks so profoundly weary, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine anything would bring him joy. But then a fairy shows up and offers him three wishes. (Be ready for a surprising and delightful ending.) Right after my own children and I finished reading this the first time, they begged me to read it four more times in a row. 

Sato the Rabbit, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop]

A colorful, dreamlike book of whimsical adventures, simply told and startling in their originality

This collection of very short tales is an offbeat visual feast. The premise is explained matter-of-factly: “One day, Haneru Sato became a rabbit. He’s been a rabbit ever since.” This kind of dream-logic pervades the rest of the book, as Sato goes boating on a watermelon, drinks colors, finds a world inside a walnut shell, and opens puddle-doors into the sky. You can read the whole book in just moments, but it sticks with you and invites re-reading, as many of the most visually-startling books do. It’s immensely charming and refreshing — in a wholly different world from most children’s books. (The second [Amazon | Bookshop] and third [Amazon | Bookshop] books in the series are also fantastic.)

The Rainbow Goblins, Ul de Rico [Amazon | Bookshop]

At once both familiar and startlingly unique, this masterfully illustrated book will capture children’s imaginations

In this striking and original book, wicked goblins routinely feast on colors drained from rainbows. So when they learn of the paradisiacal Valley of the Rainbow, the birthplace of their favorite food, the goblins hatch a plan to invade and indulge in the feast of a lifetime. But never fear: nature has a plan to fight back. This original story about rainbows is fascinating not only because of its tried-and-true good-versus-evil plot line but also because of its magnificent art. The illustrations were painted in oil paints on large oak panels, and they’re full of gorgeous detail: landscapes both idyllic and sublime, tremendous storms, and dramatic interplay between light and shadow. In other words, de Rico is intimately familiar with many of the canonical works of “great art” and has quite a bit of fun with them here (his riff on da Vinci’s The Last Supper is featured on the title page). Even the dazzlingly psychedelic endpapers are works of art. Simultaneously as familiar as a fairy tale and utterly original, this book is one to grab and hold children’s attention, to feed their imaginations – a real classic.


What Pete Ate From A to Z, Maira Kalman [Amazon | Bookshop]

Jam-packed with character and quirkiness, this alphabet book is in a brilliant world of its own

You’ve likely read more A to Z picture books than you can count, but you won’t have read a single one like Maira Kalman’s What Pete Ate From A to Z. In some ways, it’s what it sounds like: a catalog of what Pete the dog has eaten, described in alliterative paragraphs. But behind this wild and exhaustive list is a quirky cast of characters with tantalizing backstories you can only glimpse and guess at. What is the Egghead Club? And the Rubber Band Society? What scene has unfolded in Uncle Bennie’s room, as he sits on the bed and an unknown woman gazes out the window? And who, exactly, are the Twinkle Twins, and what’s the deal with their hats?! There are so many layers to ponder, and believe me, I know it: When my daughter was 1 and 2, this was her favorite book by far, so I read it at least once a day for ages. Sometimes I still think to myself, out of the blue: “Now there will be NO Yo-Yo contest. Oy-oy oy-oy oy-oy oy-oy OY.” (As one does.) I’m so grateful this book was in my life. Kalman’s work is always in a brilliant universe of its own.

Open Me… I’m a Dog!, Art Spiegelman [Amazon]

This gloriously silly book claims that it’s actually a dog (and it’s got the leash to prove it!)

This witty book from legendary writer and artist Art Spiegelman isn’t exactly about a witch, but you might say it’s the product of a witch. Here’s the concept: a witch cursed a dog and turned him into a book, your book, now your book is desperately trying to convince you that he’s not a book at all – he’s a dog! There’s even a fabric leash attached to the book, should you decide you believe him. (Sympathetic children might end up dragging this book around by the leash, as mine did.) This title is shamefully out of print, but if you can get a used copy for a reasonable price, grab it.

Animal Land Where There Are No People, Sybil and Katharine Corbet [50 Watts Books]

A collaboration between a 4-year-old and her mother, this book is a gem of surreal nonsense, a riotously funny and wondrous delight

One of the best children’s books ever written was dreamed up by a Scottish 4-year-old in 1896. Sybil liked to imagine a place she called Animal Land, full of curious beasts with nonsense names and bizarre habits and predilections. The Wuss, for example, “turns its back and eats Snakes,” while the Boddles, thrillingly, “screams and eats candles and soap.” Animal Land Where There Are No People was published the following year, in 1897, after Sybil’s mother had the brilliant foresight to write down her daughter’s words and create a series of genius illustrations to go with them – surreal and grotesque, psychedelic and strange. Few books have ever delighted me as much as this masterpiece of a collaboration between a toddler and her mother. Every time I read it, I’m flooded with joy and wonder and delight.

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams, Tiger Tateishi [50 Watts Books]

This surreal delight about a dreaming tiger features beautiful, surprising illustrations

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams was originally published in Japan in 1984, but fortunately the brilliant 50 Watts Books reissued it in 2022. The story is lovely and simple – a tiger wanders through the land of dreams – and the illustrations complex and special. Both lulling and visually arresting, these images are full of surreal pleasures: Escher-style stair mazes, Magritte-like apple forms, and miraculous transformations galore, all set in a hazy landscape worthy of Dalí. If you have a careful and attentive eye, you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of surprising, delightful details. As soon as I finished reading this one to my children, they ripped it from my hands and spent time poring over the pictures, noticing odd and impossible phenomena. A gorgeous work of art.

Red Light, Green Light, Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard [Amazon]

Charming and delightfully dystopian, this book shows it’s traffic light’s world, and we’re just living in it

Goodnight Moon is perhaps so well-known and loved that we’ve lost the sense of how deeply strange it is. But perhaps because it’s now out of print, another of Margaret Wise Brown’s books, Red Light, Green Light, has retained its refreshing strangeness. Scholastic’s blurb in the 1990s billed it as “the most evocative and beautifully illustrated book on traffic safety ever published,” but even this sells it quite short. I seem to remember a Brown biographer describing it as a children’s book as Gertrude Stein would have written it, and that’s now what I think every time I read it. Red Light, Green Light is simultaneously lulling, beautiful, and alarmingly dystopian. Its beginning might as well be an ice cold splash of water, or a robotic drone blaring from an unseen loudspeaker: “RED LIGHT / GREEN LIGHT / GOOD MORNING.” The detached narrator then repetitively catalogs a series of vehicles and creatures, all leaving home and returning home on their own roads, all abiding by the supreme rules of this universe: “Red light they can’t go. Green light they can go.” The illustrations portray a bleak, wasted landscape in browns and grays, with just the occasional bright spots of (you guessed it) red and green. And yet, even though this world grinds forward under the merciless authority of the traffic light – even though, at the end, the world is reduced to a single, arguably sinister object, the blinking traffic light – the book is somehow charming and comforting. Perhaps it’s the certainty of this simple, binary system? Or the joyful release of the green light (“GO”), when it finally appears? My children loved this book, and so do I. Despite its vibe, because of its vibe? Who would have dared to have written a children’s book like this, to have illustrated it like this – except masters of the form, who must have known exactly what they were up to? Bravo. 

It Might Be an Apple, Shinsuke Yoshitake [Amazon]

A wildly inventive and philosophical Yoshitake classic

So… suppose that the apple you wanted for a snack isn’t really an apple… What if it’s an egg, ready to hatch? Or an alien planet that crashed onto ours? What if it had past lives? Or a vast, eccentric family? Yoshitake’s wild imagination and intricate drawings tackle all this and more, and a wonderful table of invented apple names and shapes is a silly stand-out in this one. (My own children open it to precisely that page and ask me to recite the names, which I do — breathlessly! It makes them crack up every time.) Yoshitake is one of my all-time favorite children’s authors – unique and always surprising.

Jon Klassen’s Hat Box (I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat, We Found a Hat), Jon Klassen [Amazon | Bookshop]

Dark, strange, and beautiful, this set of 3 books brilliantly blends greed and brutality with humor

The first time I read I Want My Hat Back, I truly didn’t know what to make of it. But that was before my children were old enough for it. Later, during the pandemic, we were lucky enough to catch Little Angel Theatre’s genius adaptations of Klassen’s books, and no matter how many times we watched their production of I Want My Hat Back, my children absolutely roared with laughter over the bear’s quest to retrieve his stolen hat. This trilogy is now a firm favorite – so much so that I’d lost sight of how odd these books truly are. Spare and monotone, hypnotic and startling, they’re threaded with greed and outbreaks of brutality, and yet… they’re massively funny, too. Although my children probably love I Want My Hat Back best, my own favorite of the three is We Found a Hat. Every time I read it, I’m awed by its beauty – it seems to come out of nowhere, every time, like magic.

The Hole, Øyvind Torseter [Amazon | Bookshop]

A creature has to deal with a pesky hole in this clever book – with an actual hole drilled right the way through it

You can tell this book is special from the moment you hold it in your hand, for drilled right through the center of it is a perfectly neat little hole. (Hold it up to your eye and peek right through!) In the book’s mostly wordless story, a creature moves into a new apartment, only to find that there’s a hole in his wall – and no ordinary hole, either. He’s instructed to bring it in for examination, but it’s a tricky business, boxing up and transporting a hole! Of course, the actual hole in the pages remains in exactly the same position throughout the book, and Torseter has great fun reinterpreting its meaning as the story progresses. My children’s eyes lit up when we read this one (as did mine) – it’s wonderfully clever.

Nonstop, Tomi Ungerer [Amazon | Bookshop]

Visually arresting and deeply touching, this unusual book explores love and hope in times of darkness

Legendary author Tomi Ungerer’s last published book, Nonstop, is a feat of storytelling brilliance. We are told here that all people have gone to the moon, except for one, Vasco, who is fleeing a series of terrifying dangers, always “just in time.” It’s his shadow that’s leading him to safety, pointing Vasco in the right direction to avoid a collapsing building or to climb out of fast-rising floodwaters. And during his flight, Vasco picks up someone to love, a small, alien-like creature who buoys Vasco’s spirits and gives him a reason to keep searching for an oasis. And don’t worry: the shadow leads them to a better place. Just as the story is both oppressive and hopeful at once, the illustrations are imposing and apocalyptic, yet laced, too, with pops of bright color. It’s an absolutely captivating story, and despite its many wonderfully odd and surreal touches, the book’s central concern – hope and care amidst destruction and despair – feels comforting and beautiful.

In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak [Amazon | Bookshop]

Universally beloved? Divisive? Who knows?! But this classic of weird children’s literature will leave you with some intense feelings!

Decades after first reading this one, I still have a wave of feelings whenever I recall it. I must have liked it (we read it a lot), but I remember staring at it with a mix of fascination and repulsion, unsure of how to process this dough-caked fever dream of a book. It’s not just that Mickey is floating naked in a giant bottle of milk – though, yes – but are we supposed to carry on with our breakfasts, too, knowing that they’re made with liquid from Mickey’s bath…? (It seems we’re supposed to celebrate this fact.) And what was I to make of these three nearly identical bakers who seem content enough to bake a child into a cake? They do know Mickey’s in there, don’t they? Whatever the case, though, this kitchen would not pass a health inspection. So yes, I have complicated feelings about this book, but I wonder: Have you truly lived if you haven’t been thoroughly weirded out by a children’s book? And is this not a masterclass in following your artistic vision, however bizarre it might be? I can’t help but respect it. It produced a real classic. (And a final note: A friend recommended the audiobook to me, and it’s excellent, too, with a jazzy party vibe that really suits the story.)

The Little One, Kiyo Tanaka [Amazon | Bookshop]

Simply and charmingly told, this story brilliantly evokes the mystery and magic of childhood

Illustrated in beautiful black and white, this little book tells the story of a meeting between a girl and a silent, mysterious creature. It’s small and blob-like, with legs and arms and large, striking eyes – a bit like a tadpole or the shadow of a Moomin. Intrigued, she follows it to a traditional Japanese house, where the creature reveals a secret passageway to a splendid, fantastical room. And what happens in the room is magical, the stuff of dreams. And the book feels rather like a dream, too: it begins and ends without explanation – all the better without it! – and as unusual as it is, it resonates deeply, as though pulled from a fading childhood memory. Perhaps it’s the idea of a friend only you can see, or the charm of squeezing through a small opening and finding a secret hideout. Whatever it is, my own children were spellbound by this book and immediately started speculating as to whether we had any secret passageways in our house. It’s that kind of book: it sparks the imagination.

Battle Bunny, Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers [Amazon | Bookshop]

A child revises a bland and unimaginative picture book, and the result is sublime

Although it’s never explicitly explained, the concept here is that Alex’s grandmother gave him a sweet but very traditional book, Birthday Bunny — but Alex had some ideas for improvement. A story about a bunny who is sad because his friends appeared to forget his birthday? No. What Alex wanted was a doomsday action movie with lots of fighting. So the book you read here is Birthday Bunny, but with Alex’s pencil revisions and add-on illustrations (he’s a thorough chap — he’s even revised the copyright page). Now, if you don’t want to read a book with an explosives-loving zombie squirrel or poison snakes or a whole lot of fighting, maybe you shouldn’t read this one. But if you can handle all of this, the humor here is complex (in its way) and brilliantly executed. I myself made creative revisions like this as a child — and I still do it in my head, even as a grown-up, because it’s fun. The first time I read this book, I laughed so hard I cried.

This site uses affiliate links, and I might earn a small commission if you click through to buy these books. I only recommend books that I have used and love. Thank you for helping to support this site.

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