Children’s Book Nightmares: Struwwelpeter

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a copy of Struwwelpeter laying around at their house and to this day I believe it remains the most frightening children’s book ever.

The book was published in Germany in 1845 and the title translates as “Shock-Headed Peter.” The author, Heinrich Hoffman, created it because he wanted a book for his three-year-old son’s Christmas present and decided there were no good ones available. So here’s what he made:

Children's book nightmare

Children’s book creep-fest: “The Tailor” visits naughty children who suck their thumbs

I have to believe Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” was influenced by Hoffman, but Gorey’s book was at least intended to be humorous and geared towards adults. Not so, Struwwelpeter.

The book is comprised of ten illustrated stories that demonstrate the horrific consequences of bad behavior for little boys and girls. Two end with the child dying, such as the girl who burns to death because she plays with matches or the boy who wastes away because he refuses to eat soup.

I sucked my thumb as a child and, as you can see, one of the stories deals with that habit.


“Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher” (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker) deals with a boy that doesn’t listen when his mother tells him to stop. When she goes away and the self-indulgent cretin immediately sets in again, a stranger bursts in with an enormous pair of shears and, leaping across the room, snips off his thumbs. And as you can tell by the picture, even the crown molding of his house smirks at the thumbless boy’s comeuppance.

Apparently, I am not the only person who was struck by this grisly story. The poet, W. H. Auden, mentions the Scissor Man in his poem, “The Witnesses,” and Dwight Schrute reads this particular tale to a group of terrified children in a 2005 episode of “The Office.”

Trivia Bonus: Mark Twain actually wrote a translation of this book. What the hell was he thinking!??


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