The Gashleycrumb Tinies
Updated: Feb 13
by Edward Gorey
The cover of Edward Gorey's best-known book cover features Death as an undertaker, kids huddled in the shade of his umbrella. From the get-go you know it's going to be a wild ride and - sure enough - on page one we read,“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.” So begins an A to Z of dead children.
There’s an undercurrent of darkness in many of the funniest children’s tales, yet few writers go for the jugular with the abandon of the aptly-named Gorey . This book paints it black (quite literally – it’s illustrated with Gorey’s atmospheric ink artwork) and hilariously so.
A child dies on every page: twenty-six deaths that make The Gashleycrumb Tinies the grimmest alphabet primer you’re ever likely to find.
Most writers would be tempted to make these killings fantastically imaginative, but in Gorey’s world each child croaks in (mostly) all too mundane fashion. His victims perish of fire, poisoning from household goods, and so on, with touches of silliness that lighten the mood just a smidge (“N is for Neville who died of ennui” is my favourite). This serves to make the shadow of Death more real. Hey kids, this could happen to you!
First published in 1963 and, as far as I know, never out of print since, this book is bleak, dark, and nothing like what you’d expect in a children’s book. Yet it has become a classic. Yes, some of the language is dated, but that didn't pose a problem for my children, who all grew up loving the dead tinies (and no, none of them turned out to be serial killers). Sad to say I only discovered it as a teen but to give you a sense of its power I mentioned it to my 17-year-old daughter before writing this and she instantly recited it from beginning to end, with a grin. She hasn’t read it in years.
A little over 200-words long, for me at least, The Gashleycrumb Tinies had an impact that far outweighs its page extent. It opened up new possibilities in humour; showed that comedy for kids could be taken way beyond what I’d thought was acceptable. I still pick it up every so often. Because I adore it, because it helped shape my writing, and to remind myself that books that break the mould bring new dimensions to children’s literature.