For some reason, possibly because like many current YA titles it features young female protagonists in a dystopian future, The Queen of the Tearling keeps getting listed under young adult. And yet, with topics popping up such as rape, murder, mass murder (including of children), child rape, infant rape, prostitution, forced prostitution, and torture, this book is often compared to A Song of Ice and Fire.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is classified as a YA book, and some book covers make it look like a children's fairy tale. However, it contains incestuous rape of a teenage girl, forced abortion, teen pregnancy, two instances of gang rape, and even bestiality.
Professional storyteller (yes, there is such a thing) Bil Lepp had much to say about this trope in regards to literature. He explains that a child playing video games, watching television, or reading graphic novels is a lot more prone to parental intervention than one reading a book, as the usual parent's response to their offspring sitting quietly with a book in their hands is that they are broadening their minds. He uses this simultaneously as a way to attract children to literature (an issue he is quite passionate about), and to tell parents to be more concerned continue supporting young readers.
Even with parents who are aware that the books cover sensitive topics, they're often more apt to allow their children to read them than to watch films or play games that address the same topics, under the not-always-accurate assumption that books would naturally be more careful about how they would approach them.
It could also be that you don't actually have to see anything in a book; reading a sex scene would be a lot different for a kid than seeing it on camera, and the same goes for gore. Kids may have active imaginations, but when reading they typically won't imagine what they can't understand (naturally) and so wouldn't be so forcibly exposed to violence as they would be if it was on television. Of course, if the scenes are described particularly graphically, that probably won't be the case at all. In an article on writing for children that used to be on The BBC website, Diana Wynne Jones advises against sex scenes because the kids will find them boring and confusing, rather than traumatic.
Halvgudene: some seem to think of it as children's literature, but the characters speak openly about drugs, sexual attraction, violence, cutting etc. They can swear a lot too. The way the main characters was bullied is also rough to read. Especially when they go back to Oslo without Trigg, and the bully asks "Did she cut a little too far in?".
Fairy tales in general fall victim to this trope, most of the time. Some versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" involve the main character giving a strip-tease to the wolf to distract him long enough to escape. The ever so infamous story of The Red Shoes involves a girl cursed to dance by her shoes, until she gets an executioner to chop her feet off! This trope is Older Than Feudalism, at the very least (of course, that is if you compare our standards with the stories of those times. Back in those days, these stories were to Scare 'Em Straight).
In one version of "Little Red Riding Hood", the wolf tries to get her into bed so he can "devour" her. Variations include him having her strip before getting into bed and tying a rope to her when she tries to get out (under the pretense that she needs to defecate).
"Sun, Moon, and Talia", a 17th century fairy tale of the "Sleeping Beauty" type, starts off like the commonly known "Sleeping Beauty". After the princess enters her slumber, however, instead of a simple kiss, the Prince decides to rape her. She becomes pregnant and gives birth while still comatose. She is reawakened when one of her children sucks the magic splinter out of her finger. She then decides that she is madly in love with the Prince. So, after executing the Prince's wife (after the wife tried to burn Talia alive and feed the two children to the Prince), they live happily ever after.
Aladdin was a kid's movie, complete with a source-tribute opening song about "Arabian nights". But parents whose kids pester them for more of the same shouldn't touch A Thousand and One Nights with a ten foot pole, unless they want their children reading about forced marriage, infidelity, serial uxoricide, and explicit descriptions of human anatomy ... and that's just in the frame story! Hopefully they'll catch on before Scheherazade starts rambling on about corpse-tearing ghouls, bestiality, or penis humor.
Animal Farm. Think it's a light-hearted story about talking animals? Nope, it's actually a very clever allegory of the Russian Revolution, and a general morality tale about power corrupting. The first edition was even subtitled "A Fairy Story". One Animated Adaptation wimped out on the ending though, which took a lot of objectionable content out.
H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds is a classic novel and such. But is in no way for kids. Especially some of the graphic descriptions of the Martians, and the dark psychological study of how people might react to such an invasion. One wonders why they make kids 12-14 read it in schools.
William Horwood's Duncton Wood series is about talking moles. Ahh, fluffy critters! It's most definitely not for children, what with all the graphic sex and violence.
Likewise, Adams's The Plague Dogs. An excellent book that brave kids will love, but not written for children.
The movie takes it even further. They drown at sea, rather than The Owner saving them.
Picture books and illustrated novels as a whole deserve a mention here. In particular, Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg have found themselves running into an "Illustration Age Ghetto".
One case that stands is William Steig's book of Greek myths. They aren't by their nature very child-friendly, but Steig actually went out of his way to choose some of the bawdier ones (one is about the origin of prostitution and another about how Hercules and his girlfriend liked to dress in each other's clothing).
Oh, Merlin. "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" was like something straight from Sandman. The Illustration of the Warlock and the Woman dead in a very big pool of blood.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a funny case in that if you're a little kid, you probably won't get some of the more family-unfriendly lines, in a sort of twisted cousin of Parental Bonus. It's certainly one hell of a delayed realization, however, to understand the line, "She said she'd never kissed a man before, and she might as well kiss a nigger. She said what her pa do to her don't count."
They have this one in the UK (or did at least) as a book study for kids at school somewhere around 12-16. As a powerful book about rape, incest, bigotry, racism, slavery, and human rights, it's one of those books people like to try to get banned because it has the word 'nigger' in it.
UK still has To Kill a Mockingbird as a book study in upper high school (KS4/GCSEs) so it's age 14-16.
Given the number of children's stories Roald Dahl has written, some libraries will put any of his works in the children's section. This is not a good idea — his early work might best be described as "O. Henry meetsThe Twilight Zone."
It's even worse than that - Dahl wrote erotic fiction. In exactly the same writing style as his children's books. When the last story features what could be delicately called human rutting perfume & a penis expansion scene, you know it's not for children. Here's a quote from the Amazon page linked above (you know, the collection of erotic fiction!):
From the publication of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the 1960s to his death in 1990, Roald Dahl became the most successful children’s author in the world. Nearly twenty years later, a fresh generation of children seek out his work with instinctive fanaticism. His creations endure - through Hollywood movies, theatre adaptations and musical works, but still most potently of all through the pure magic of his writing upon the page.
This is speculated to be the reason why Rowling's second adult novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, was released under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Because of its covers (in two different versions) of the little girl protagonist Minnie, Phoebe Gloeckner's somewhat autobiographical comic collection A Child's Life is sometimes filed in the children's section of libraries and bookstores. This particular child, among other things, was a victim of statutory rape by her mother's boyfriend and spent some time as a prostitute in exchange for drugs.
Wicked? Oh, an alternate telling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Surely such a thing would not have explicit sex, drugs, swearing, graphic violence, extramarital affairs, a sociopathic, depressive protagonist who kills an old woman in her bed, the abuse of minorities, and a crippled religious fanatic who is horribly killed. Not to mention that it has a quite different portrayal of Oz (at least when compared to the film), which often invokes Canon Defilement in fans of Baum canon, especially younger fans. This is not helped by the fact that the the musical adaptationis fairly kid-friendly.
Gregory Maguire lampshaded this in an interview, when he talked about signing copies of the novel at performances of the aforementioned musical adaptation, and admitted that he had to talk quite a few adults out of buying it for their children.
Dave Barry's novel Big Trouble has an introduction warning readers, "This is not a book for youngsters. I point this out because I know, from reading my mail, that a lot of youngsters read my humor books and newspaper columns, and I'm thrilled that they do. But this book is not for them, because some of the characters use Adult Language." Enough people ignored the warning and were offended by the language that Tricky Business began with a more explicit Content Warning in larger letters.
Spellsinger: A young man is Trapped in Another World full of cute fuzzy Funny Animal characters, where he learns to work magic by singing. Sounds like a children's book. Then you realise that the prologue includes a Gorn-filled description of the destruction of a town, that Jon-Tom was transported into this magical world while smoking pot, that furry sex is a regular occurrence in said world, and that Mudge and Pog use the word "fuck" in just about every other sentence. Oh, and don't forget the stripteasing stoat.
The Russian version of the Neil Gaiman short story anthology Fragile Things sports a seemingly innocent cover features a boy sitting in a graveyard playing cat's-cradle with a ghost. This was likely meant to invoke the feel of one of Gaiman's other works, The Graveyard Book. But while The Graveyard Book is (in Gaiman's own words) "intended for people of all ages," Fragile Things most certainly isn't.
Stardust is a fairy story, but that doesn't mean it's a children's book. It has a sex scene in the first chapter.
Happens to the Samurai Cat books. The fact that they're illustrated doesn't help in convincing clueless parents that they're not just another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon ripoff, but deliberately over-the-top Gornfests parodying pop culture.
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.
Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood.
If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?
Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens
All of Anne McCaffrey's books (though especially the Pern ones) seem to be, for one reason or another, attractive to kids and teens. (On Good Reads.com a large number of reviewers of these books say they originally read them at quite a young age.)
There was a printing of the first Dragonriders of Pern book that had illustrations throughout and a back-cover blurb that basically made the book out to be a story about a girl and her dragon. It was also slightly edited to be more appropriate for kids. Now imagine an unknowing parent presenting their newly Pern-addicted eleven-year-old with the second book in the series, of which no kid-friendly edition exists. Wow, look! It's got rape, domestic violence, a disturbing dragon fight scene, F'nor and Canth getting their skins burned off, discussion of abortion... maybe this wasn't such a good idea...
Robin McKinley is best known for her stories for young adults, but her novel Deerskin is most definitely not one of them. A Grimmification of the fairytale Donkeyskin, it deals with such things as Parental Incest, rape, miscarriage, and psychological breakdowns. It's a beautiful story, but definitely not something a ten-year-old should be reading.
The Belgariad is sometimes put in the children's section of bookstores and it raises some questions, "So what exactly makes the Belgariad suitable for children? The graphic descriptions of human sacrifices to Torak? The slave in Nyissa who dies from being eaten by leeches? Zedar's fate? The torture chamber in the second book? Just about all of Rak Cthol?"
Aversion: Piers Anthony's Xanth series starts out very clean-cut. There's violence, and there's off-screen sex, but no more than most fairy tales. Then, he found out that his books were being put into the kid's section and he had the "Adult Conspiracy" break down and the books became more explicit.
The Arthurian Legends: rape, incest, marital infidelity, and a massacre of the innocents. That's before we even get onto the battles and the chivalrous bloodletting. As for TH White's version, it has a description of a cat being boiled alive. Plus, if you have the original, standalone version of his The Sword in the Stone, well, Madam Mim owns a lithograph entitled "The Virgin's Choise" - would you be able to explain that to your kids? FYI White doesn't explain this rather obscure reference either, but presumably it's the same as in The Canterbury Tales' "The Wife of Bath's Prologue", where she refers to her "chose", (literally, her "thing") meaning her pudenda. Basically, Madam Mim has a historic porn pic of a virgin displaying her maidenhead or hymen.
The Tin Drum is a story of a boy who refused to grow up. It has a premise of a children's tale but the book and movie are both very adult and heavily political.
Gulliver's Travels shows that this trope is Older Than They Think. Largely regarded as a children's tale with many, many Bowdleriseed versions of it out there, it was successful among children even when it was first published in the 18th century... despite the fact that the unaltered text is, in fact, a heavily satirical and most definitely an adult book, being among the most preeminent satirical works of the English language.
A chapter of the Doraemon manga has Nobita and his friends reading the book. Whether he is reading the simplified version or not, or if it's just the author wanting to incorporate the book somehow in that story isn't known.
You know the innocent Joey Pigza children's award-winning books? Well, what could be wrong with a book by the same author named Jack on the Tracks? Perhaps the references to porno, striptease, and suicide?
A non-explicit variation in the novel version of The Princess Bride: William Goldman is presented as the "abridger" of someone else's book. He is surprised to discover that his favorite story from childhood (which had always been read to him by his father) was really meant to be a historical satire, containing long descriptions and historical accounts which would bore children to tears.
Tarzan. Thanks to the Disneyfied animated adaptations, the books are sometimes mistaken for being child-friendly jungle adventure stories as well. In reality, Burroughs' novels present a fair amount of violence, occasionally even Gorny torture scenes.
Pierre Dubois's La Grande Encyclopédie des lutins. It's a book about fairies, gnomes, elves, pixies and the like. Surely it must be a great gift for any child! Yep, especially the occasional nudity (for example, the faun, who is outright depicted with a prominent erect penis.) Or the (admittedly more or less subtle) sexual references (such as the Hosenteufel, a demon who is, quite literally, a personification of the male organ.) Or the explicit and terror-inducing descriptions of just what these fairies can sometimes do to you. (This fairy world is definitely not a Sugar Bowl.)
Circle of Magic by Tamora Pierce. Yes, the protagonists start at age 10. No, this is not something you should show your ten-year-old. Even in the first series (arguably the lightest), rape is explicitly mentioned and there are quite a few gruesome deaths. And yet some libraries still put it in the kids' section.
Some teachers in Germany have seventh-graders (so children who can be as young as 12) read Perfume by Patrick Süßkind. The book features a sociopathic serial killer as the protagonist, scenes of graphic violence, a mass orgy induced by the titular perfume and ends with The protagonist committing suicide by letting himself be cannibalized. Those teachers probably let themselves be fooled by the fact that The Movie is rated 12, despite featuring scenes that could very well disturb a 12 or 13 year old, such as the bloody and painful portrayal of the birth of the protagonist.note In Austria it was given the rating 14, which does not exist in Germany . The book and movie are recommended by the ministry of education, but for grade 10, not only due to its portrayal of sex and violence, but also because most of the philosophical references and undertones, the reason it got a recommendation in the first place, would go right over a 7th graders head.
Diana Wynne Jones primarily wrote children's books, but Deep Secret was originally published under an adult label—and for good reason. The book has more explicit references to sex (and, relatedly, pornography and adultery) than her other works, as well as several instances of rather shocking violence (some of it against children). Its sequel The Merlin Conspiracy, however, is much tamer — so that it was published for children, but with the inside blurb claiming the book is stand-alone. Similarly, the lists of Jones's other works found inside her other children's books usually make it a point to exclude Deep Secret. However, there was a publishing of Deep Secret done under Tor's Starscape label, which is specifically targeted at young teenage readers.
Henrik Drescher's Tales From The Crib. Don't let the bottle shaped book and the picture book format fool you. This book is filled with sexual imagery and dark themes about the dark side of parenting.
For a very odd case reminiscent of Mark Twain's issues, there is Mumu by Ivan Turgenev. Originally an adult-directed commentary asserting that feudal Russia was a Crapsack World, it has since become an incredibly popular bedtime story in its native Russia, spawning quite a few cartoons "marketed" (Soviet Union, markets illegal) for kids, despite featuring what Russians call a realistic ending in which the starring deaf-mute drowns Mumu, his only friend and loyal puppy. This explains so much about Russia.
A book published in Soviet Union with titled "Dostoevsky to children". You know, Dostoevsky has never written books for children, but he did write about children, what was a principle to select fragments for this antology.
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Treenote Yes, it was published in Soviet Union, for reasons like mentioned below. - retelling of The Little Match Girl, dying child and many already miserably dead included.
Death of Ilyusha from The Brothers Karamazov. For extra spice, a trick with feeding a dog with a pin is described unlike the boy, it gets better.
Death of vehicle-crushed drunk Marmeladov in front of his children, surrounded by their tuberculosis stricken mother, prostitute elder half-sister and some local riff-raff (including one kind student who is, you probably know, a murderer).
In the Soviet Union there was a "classical age ghetto" — a common belief that classical art, especially literature, was made to teach what is True Art and Good Sense to schoolchildren. This lived together with very fuzzy age rating system and the fact that description of pre-revolutionary times was kept on board much to show that everything was a Crapsack World before Lenin came and fixed it. Some combination of these factors allowed Ivan Bunin's work Village to be published by publishing house "Malysh"note Literally, "Baby" publishing house (specializing mainly on very first children's reading) and get to school libraries. Well, about scaring someone out of late Tsarist Russia this book does the best, portraying stillbirth, forced adultery, infanticide, husband spoiling, gang rape and other things not AT ALL for babies.
While the works of Jules Verne aren't actually inappropriate, they were originally written for adults and are still sold for adults in France. In the Anglophone world until very recently, the translations were so poorly written that only children put up with the simplistic grammar and enjoy the ideas.
The writer of the Dark Heavens series has no idea why her books keep getting shelved in the YA section, but in Dark Serpent, she had to put a note in the front saying "mature themes, possibly inappropriate for younger readers, reader discretion is advised." This is a bit of an understatement, as the sex, violence and torture in the series are about as kid-friendly as Game of Thrones (a show which is actually referenced in the series at one point).
Discworld - funny fantasy by the guy who wrote kids' books like the Nomes Trilogy and Johnny Maxwell Trilogy? Well, maybe. There probably isn't anything particularly scarring in there, and the language never gets worse than "shit" (and rarely above "bloody"), but Sir Terry himself admitted to being perturbed when a class full of kids wrote him letters about The Truth and how much they liked the violent, would-be drug addict Mr Tulip. Of course, there are also Discworld novels that are aimed at kids: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the Tiffany Aching novels - although one might argue each Tiffany book isn't entirely suitable for kids younger than Tiffany at the time (I Shall Wear Midnight features mob justice for a child beater, and even in-story Tiffany's dad is uncomfortable telling her the backstory to that, as well as a being of pure hatred that poisons everyone against Tiffany - it's notable that Wintersmith onwards lack the "compact hardback" editions of previous YA Discworld novels, appearing more like the adult books).