12 Facts About James Joyce

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

How 25 of Your Favorite Halloween Candies Got Their Names

iStock/mediaphotos
iStock/mediaphotos

Soon, small superheroes and ghosts and all sorts of other strange creatures will be canvassing your neighborhood begging for candy. But as you pass out your wares, you can also dole out some (not terribly spooky) etymologies.

1. 3 MUSKETEERS

3 Musketeers candy bar.
Erin McCarthy

When 3 Musketeers bars were introduced in 1932, they consisted of three flavors—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry—and were labeled "The 3 Musketeers, Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry. 3 bars in a package.' Eventually the vanilla and strawberry flavors would disappear, although there’s evidence that they weren't ever particularly important flavors. A 1933 Notice of Judgment from the Acting Secretary of Agriculture describes a shipment of the treats that was seized in part because "[t]he strawberry and vanilla bars had no recognizable flavor of strawberry or vanilla and the strawberry bars were also artificially colored."

2. AIRHEADS

Pile of AirHeads candy.
Jasmin Fine, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

According to Steve Bruner, who invented the name, he had heard that it takes a generation for a candy name to become part of the collective consciousness—unless it was already a commonly used word. So he asked his children, "What would you call your friend who did something silly?" and one of them came up with 'Airhead.'

3. BUTTERFINGER

Three Butterfinger candy bars.
Amira Azarcon, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to legend, the Curtiss Candy Company of Chicago decided to run a contest to name their new candy bar, and someone suggested 'butterfinger,' a term used in the form "butter-fingered" since the early 17th century to describe someone who lets things fall from their hands.

4. CANDY CORN

Jack-o-lantern mug full of candy corn.
iStock

In the late 19th century, confections shaped like other things were all the rage (the Candy Professor tells of children then eating candies shaped like cockroaches … for Christmas). Candy corn was invented around this time, and was a stand-out novelty product because real corn kernels—which the candy vaguely resembled—were then mainly a food for livestock, not people.

5. DUM DUMS

Jar of Dum Dums lollipops.
Sarah Browning, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

According to the Spangler Candy Company, the manufacturer, the name Dum Dum was chosen because it "was a word any child could say."

6. HEATH BAR

Two Heath candy bars.
Erika Berlin

In 1914, L.S. Heath decided to buy a candy shop and soda fountain so his children could have a good career. Several years later, the family got hold of the toffee recipe (potential sources range from a traveling salesman to nearby Greek candy makers) that made them famous, especially after they started supplying candy to troops during WWII.

7. HERSHEY'S

Hershey's chocolate bars in a basket.
slgckgc, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Milton Hershey had worked for a few years in various candy businesses, but it was in Denver that he came across the caramel recipe that would become a massive hit. Not resting on his laurels, he learned of the new European craze for "milk chocolate" and brought it to the masses in America.

8. HERSHEY'S COOKIES 'N' CREME

Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The candy bar came about in 1994, somewhere around 15-20 years after the ice cream flavor that it was capitalizing on. Where the ice cream comes from is a mystery—claimants range from South Dakota State University to a Blue Bell Creameries employee (to make matters more difficult, many versions of the story have the invention happening after a visit to some anonymous ice cream parlor that put Oreos on their ice cream, and as early as 1959 Nabisco was suggesting that crumbled Oreos in-between layers of ice cream made a great party parfait). No matter the culinary origin, the name origin is generally agreed upon—Nabisco balked at allowing ice cream companies to use their Oreo trademark.

9. HERSHEY'S KISSES

Hershey Kisses on an orange table.
Song Zhen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over 100 years ago, kiss was a generic term for any number of small pieces of confectionery. So when Hershey came out with their product, it was a natural generic name. As years went by and "kiss" lost this particular meaning, Hershey was able to assert control over the name.

10. JOLLY RANCHERS

Bowl of Jolly Rancher candies.
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

When William and Dorothy Harmsen set out to Colorado, their goal was to start a small farm/ranch. Eventually, they decided to open up an ice cream parlor named The Jolly Rancher, evoking both Western hospitality and the Jolly Miller—a hotel in their native Minnesota. The story goes that as sales declined in the winter months, the Harmsens decided to add candies to their menu, which soon outstripped the popularity of all their other offerings.

11. KIT KAT

No one is quite sure where this comes from. The oldest use of the word "kit-cat" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1665 to describe a game more commonly known as tipcat, but this is probably coincidence. More likely is that it’s somehow related to the Kit-Cat Club of the early 18th century, which met at a place operated by a mutton pieman named something like Christopher Katt or Christopher Catling. Both he and his pies were named Kit-Kats/Kit-Cats (the prologue to the 1700 play The Reformed Wife even has a line "A Kit-Cat is a supper for a lord"), and the club took its name from either the pie or the pieman.

The jump from a gentleman's club or mutton pie to a candy is more mysterious. A popular theory is that it's related to kit-cat pictures, a type of portrait that the OED describes as "less than half-length, but [includes] the hands." But like most other hypotheses, this doesn't really work because the producer, Rowntree's, registered the name years before there was a candy to go with it, and the candy was originally known as Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. Most likely is that someone just liked the name.

12. LIFE SAVERS

Pile of Life Savers candies.
Erika Berlin

The name Life Savers is fairly self-explanatory—they're broadly shaped like a life saver. (Any rumors of the hole existing to prevent a choking death have no merit.)

13. MILKY WAY

Milky Way candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Before 1970, Milky Way had a very different connotation. That year, headlines in newspapers across the country blared "FTC Decides Candy Bar Isn't Equal to Milk." The reason for this headline is that the FTC criticized Mars for implying in their advertising things like "Milky Way's nutritional value is equivalent to a glass of milk" and 'That it can and should be substituted for milk." (Odd nutrition claims were nothing new though—early on, Hershey’s advertised their chocolate bars as being "more sustaining than meat.")

While the galaxy certainly helped with the name, the original focus of the Milky Way was about how "milky" it was, and specifically that it was milkier than a malted milk you could get at a soda fountain.

14. M&M's

Bag of opened M&Ms.
iStock

The two Ms stand for Mars and Murrie. This Mars was Forrest Mars, the son of Mars candy company founder Frank Mars. Forrest and Frank had a falling out, which resulted in Forrest going to Europe and founding his own candy company (many years later, he would return to take over Mars, Inc after his father's death).

How he came up with the idea for M&M's is a bit mysterious (with versions ranging from wholesale ripoff to inspiration during the Spanish Civil War), but is generally related to a candy-covered British chocolate called Smarties (unrelated to the American Smarties). When Forrest Mars returned to the United States to make these candies, he recognized that he needed a steady supply of chocolate. At the time, Hershey was a major supplier of chocolate to other businesses and was run by a man named William Murrie. Forrest decided to go into business with William's son, Bruce (which long rumored to be a shameless ploy by Forrest to ensure a chocolate supply during World War II), and they named the candy M&M's.

15. MR. GOODBAR

Bowl of Mr. Goodbar candy bars.
Erika Berlin

According to corporate history, Hershey chemists had been working on a new peanut candy bar. As they were testing it, someone said "that's a good bar" which Milton Hershey misheard as "Mr. Goodbar."

16. REESE'S PEANUT BUTTER CUPS

Stack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
Sheila Sund, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Harry Burnett Reese started working for the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1916 as a dairy farmer, but after leaving and returning to Hershey's a few times over the following years, Reese set out on his own. His great peanut butter cup invention was supposedly inspired by a store owner who told him that they were having difficulties with their supplier of chocolate-covered peanut butter sweets.

17. SKITTLES

Bags of Skittles in a vending machine.
calvinnivlac, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Skittles originated in the United Kingdom, where "skittles" is a type of bowling, either on lawns or on a tabletop in pubs. The phrase "beer and skittles" emerged to describe pure happiness (now more commonly seen in "life is not beer and skittles"). So the name for the candy likely emerged to associate it with fun.

18. SNICKERS

Bunch of Snickers fun size candies.
iStock

The candy bar was named after the Mars family horse. The Mars family was very into horses, even naming their farm the Milky Way Farm—which produced the 1940 Kentucky Derby champion Gallahadion.

19. SOUR PATCH KIDS

Two bags of Sour Patch Kids.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Originally called Mars Men, the Sour Patch Kid was renamed to capitalize on the popularity of the '80s craze of Cabbage Patch Kids.

20. TOBLERONE

Close-up of a Toblerone candy bar.
Helena Eriksson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Toblerone is a portmanteau of the candy inventor—Theodor Tobler—and torrone, a name for various Italian nougats. As for the distinctive triangle shape, it's generally credited to the Swiss Alps, but Toblerone’s UK site suggests something a little racier—"a red and cream-frilled line of dancers at the Folies Bergères in Paris, forming a shapely pyramid at the end of a show.”

21. TOOTSIE ROLL

Pile of Tootsie Roll candies.
Lynn Friedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The official story is that in the late 19th century, Leo Hirschfeld invented the Tootsie Roll—Tootsie coming from his daughter's nickname. But the Candy Professor has blown multiple holes in the official story, finding evidence from patents to trademark filings that show Tootsie Rolls came into existence circa 1907. And as for the Tootsie? The Candy Professor has also found that the company that applied for those trademarks had an earlier product called Bromangelon that had as a mascot the character "Tattling Tootsie." Whether this Tootsie was named after Hirschfeld’s daughter or something mysterious is still debated.

22. TWIX

Twix candy bar.
iStock

The meaning behind Twix has been lost to time (and marketing). But the general consensus is that it's a portmanteau of twin and sticks (stix), or possibly twin and mix.

23. TWIZZLERS

Bag of Twizzlers candy.
iStock

Another term where the true origin is unknown, but it’s certainly related to the word twizzle, which dates back to the 18th century. One of the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary gives is "To twirl, twist; to turn round; to form by twisting."

24. YORK PEPPERMINT PATTIES

Two York Peppermint Patties
Barb Watson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The popular patties were originally created by the York Cone Company out of York, Pennsylvania, which made ice cream cones before going all in on their new invention. As for the "Peanuts" character Peppermint Patty, Charles Schulz said that the name inspiration was "A dish of candy sitting in our living room." But as the York version was still regional at the time, the inspiration was probably a different peppermint patty.

25. BABY RUTH

Pile of Baby Ruth mini candy bars.
Erika Berlin

A debate for the ages. Otto Schnering named the bar after either Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland (whose New York Times obituary said, "She was known to the Nation as 'Baby Ruth' while she was a child in the White House") or Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player. While Baby Ruth was a very popular name (and not just for Presidential daughters. An actress at the time of the candy bar’s introduction was known as "Baby" Ruth Sullivan), Babe Ruth proponents point out that Cleveland’s daughter died in 1904, around 17 years before the candy was introduced. But claims of a recently discovered court document has Schnering answering under oath the question "When you adopted the trade mark Baby Ruth…did you at that time [take] into consideration any value that the nickname Babe Ruth…might have?”

Schnering responded, "The bar was named for Baby Ruth, the first baby of the White House, Cleveland, dating back to the Cleveland administration…There was a suggestion, at the time, that Babe Ruth, however not a big figure at the time as he later developed to be, might have possibilities of developing in such a way as to help our merchandising of our bar Baby Ruth."

12 Quirky Books for Imaginative Kids

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Though childhood classics like A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are never truly go out of style, each year brings a new cache of funny and fantastical books that will feed the expanding imaginations of young readers everywhere. From a self-conscious sewer monster who wants to make friends to a gluttonous dinosaur who gobbled up Christmas, this guide has the perfect quirky story for every kind of kid on your holiday gift list.

1. Rumple Buttercup // Matthew Gray Gubler ($9)

This whimsical tale about a self-conscious sewer monster is written and illustrated by Criminal Minds star, and king of quirk, Matthew Gray Gubler. While cute characters and a simple message about embracing your individuality make it a great gift for very young kids, its absurdist humor makes it a laugh-out-loud read for older kids and adults, too.

Buy it: Amazon

2. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath // Mac Barnett ($8)

president taft is stuck in the bath
Candlewick/Amazon

Mac Barnett’s good-natured retelling of William Howard Taft’s infamous (though unconfirmed) bathtub blunder teaches children two things. One, history is far from a tedious list of names, dates, laws, and battles. And two, even the most stately world leaders have embarrassing moments.

Buy it: Amazon

3. It’s Only Stanley // Jon Agee ($15)

it's only stanley book
Dial Books/Amazon

When strange noises wake the Wimbledon family at night, they assume their dog Stanley is cleaning or fixing something; in reality, Stanley is transforming their house into a rocket ship that will carry them to an alien-inhabited planet. Fans of The Secret Life of Pets and Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus will love this rhyming read-aloud (and surely wonder what their own pet is up to when they’re not around).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge // Megan Frazer Blakemore ($6)

frankie sparks and the big sled challenge
Aladdin/Amazon

Third-grade inventor Frankie Sparks is back for the third book in her STEM-inspired series, and this time, she’s about to learn that the hardest part about creating a competition-winning sled is less about sled-building and more about team-building. Great for elementary school kids who love to create anything—be it art or architecture—as well as anyone who’s ever had to work on a group project.

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! // Mo Willems ($10)

the pigeon has to go to school
Hyperion Books/Amazon

Mo Willems’s original pigeon book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a thoroughly riotous, award-winning tale about a pigeon trying to convince readers to let it drive the bus when the bus driver asked them not to. In the latest story, the headstrong pigeon pivots to something it very much does not want to do—go to school. It sends a message about the value of doing things you don’t want to do, but, most importantly, it’s also really funny.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Glass Town Game // Catherynne M. Valente ($11)

the glass town game
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente spins a riveting fictional tale from the true story of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë’s childhood in a Yorkshire parsonage, where they passed the time dreaming up an intricate fantasy land populated with toy soldiers. In Valente’s novel, the fantasy land comes to life, complete with whale-sized flies, Champagne flutes that play music, and fire-breathing porcelain roosters, and the siblings must use all their wit and imagination to figure out how to get home. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Chronicles of Narnia, and perfect for fans of both.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Lambslide // Ann Patchett ($13)

lambslide
HarperCollins/Amazon

The internationally bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth is just as clever when it comes to writing for kids. In Lambslide, a group of lambs mistakenly hear lambslide instead of landslide and begin a farm-wide campaign for an actual slide for lambs. With quaint illustrations, endearing characters, and an engaging plot, this is the type of book that ends up in the family for generations.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Book With No Pictures // B.J. Novak ($9)

The Office alum B.J. Novak turns storytime into a full-fledged comedic performance with The Book With No Pictures, a book filled with nonsense words and phrases like blork and blaggity blaggity, which the reader has to read aloud. For parents, it’s a blueprint for embracing their silly side. For kids, it’s a chance to see their parents not seem so parental.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Spencer’s New Pet // Jessie Sima ($14)

spencer's new pet
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

The author of Not Quite Narwhal returns with another adorable story, this time about a boy who must avoid sharp objects in order to protect his balloon-animal pet dog. The mostly black-and-white illustrations (except for the dog, which is red) give Spencer’s New Pet a refreshingly old-fashioned feel, and the tale itself is sweet, evenly paced, and timeless.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Serafina and the Black Cloak // Robert Beatty ($8)

serafina and the black cloak
Disney-Hyperion/Amazon

When children begin disappearing from the Biltmore Estate, Serafina, who secretly lives in the basement, knows the culprit is a mysterious man in a black cloak who prowls the corridors at night. This novel has everything a quality middle-grade fantasy needs, including secret passageways, a forbidden forest, unknown magic, and a scrappy heroine. And the chills and thrills don’t stop at the end—it’s the first in a series of four (so far).

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas // Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter ($18)

the dinosaur that pooped christmas
Aladdin/Amazon

This jolly, strange story about a ravenous pet dinosaur who gobbles up all of Christmas is hilarious enough on its own—and perhaps even more so when you consider that it was written by British punk rockers Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter from the band McFly.

Buy it: Amazon

12. This Is a Taco! // Andrew Cangelose ($16)

this is a taco
Lion Forge/Amazon

A high-spirited, unique squirrel named Taco provides color commentary on regular squirrel facts in This Is a Taco!, a book that is much more than a factual guide to squirrels. In it, Taco embellishes, acts out, and sometimes completely changes the facts to be truer to his personal experience as a squirrel, which involves being opinionated and eating lots of tacos.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER