My enthusiasm for bedtime stories is born in part from my own memories. In our house growing up, my sisters and I would pile into one bed or another with one parent or another and read. In my mind’s ear—if you’ll allow—I can hear my dad’s voice reading Dr. De Soto. The exact timbre and gravity of his voice reading The Polar Express is etched in my brain. I’ll probably never master my mom’s rendition of Eloise—complete with high-pitched tremolo and lightening fast speed—but you can bet I’ll try.
It’s not just the stories themselves that I remember. I can conjure the particular perfume of my sisters’ and my damp hair as we lay, freshly bathed, waiting for stories; the rise and fall of my dad’s chest as he made his way through Frog and Toad; the safe comfort of the spot below my mom’s collar bone, where I’d tuck my head and settle in for another reading of Miss Rumphius.
There’s solid research that shows that reading aloud is good for babies—even very tiny ones. You’ve probably heard this. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2014 confirmed that reading aloud to children from infancy has direct correlation with language acquisition and brain development. As a result the internet is filled with how-tos and suggestions for parents to carve out story time for their young charges. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve seen no fewer than three blog posts on the subject. (Here’s the official guide from the AAP.) Experts and parents alike recommend incorporating regular reading into a baby’s daily activities. They say to read with emotion. And to supply sturdy books in anticipation that they might get gummed once a baby can grasp them. Repetition is good. Choice is terrific. There’s the suggestion that a bedtime story ritual can promote calm and quiet for the baby at the end of the day.
But in all of the things I’ve read, there’s rarely been the suggestion that the time can be beneficial to the parents. I appreciate that this maybe isn’t the point. And I realize that my sample size of one might not be terribly convincing. (There’s two if you count James!) But I love story time. It’s a built in break from my day. It practically requires me to unwind a bit in the evening. If I’m lucky, I can disappear into another world for a half hour. I get to practice all my weirdo voices. My cockney accent is getting good. I can recite a few of our favorites from memory.
Sixteen months in, I won’t say that reading bedtime stories doesn’t take some amount of perseverance (and even physical strength). Faye tries to somersault off the bed at least as often as she lays back and turns the pages. Last night alone, I lifted her back up onto the bed from which she’d wriggled no fewer than five times. But mild wrestling aside, the time that we manage to carve out is mostly magic. It’s the moment in our day when we’re most likely to notice that Faye is trying out a new word or animal sound. It’s a chance to snuggle in close and listen to the sweet sound of her sucking on her tiny fingers and watch her twirl her hair.
In building our own little library—which we keep tucked into two boxes under the cot—I try to find a mixture of books that are beautiful and thoughtful and pleasant to read. We have old books that I loved as a child and new books that have caught my eye in our neighborhood bookstore. There’s most always a stack of library books to choose from, too. I try to find books that show a range of people and places. There’s a strange preponderance of whiny kids and worn out parents in children’s books and I steer clear of those when I can. (Children might whine and parents might get worn out, but I don’t mind glossing over that dynamic at bedtime.) We have books that take place in the country, but enough that take place in the city so that things like water tanks and pigeons and windowsill squirrels also find their way into Faye’s stories.
Because some of you have asked, here’s a list of favorites in our current collection:
A few recent favorites:
Little Blue Truck: I love this book. It’s such a joyful and bouncy story with a nice rhythm and lots of opportunities to make funny voices.
Little Blue Truck Leads the Way: The citified sequel is also cute and offers more city views (and trucks and taxis).
Home: The illustrations in this book are just wonderful. Faye is enamored with the one featuring a boot-full of children. She repeatedly flips the pages backward to find that one.
The Wonderful Things You Will Be: A rhyming book with beautiful illustrations that show diverse and imaginative children.
I Want My Hat Back: Faye’s a little young to fully grasp the plot here, but she’s enthusiastic about spotting the turtle and the big bear delights her. Me too.
Bright Barnyard: This ’60s classic was re-released this year. Faye loves it. It’s a long one, but she’ll sit through the entire thing, totally entranced by the bright illustrations (and her father’s clucking).
A Funny Little Bird: This was one of the first books with an actual plot that Faye would sit through. The illustrations are lovely and the story sweet.
The Moon is Going to Addy’s House: I’m a sucker for a good-looking children’s book and this one is gorgeous—paper cutouts from marbled pages.
Some oldies but goodies:
Ten, Nine, Eight: I love the rhythm of this book. “Ten small toes, all washed and warm…”And in a world that’s woefully short on children’s books featuring children of color, this one is a refreshing, if practically vintage, exception.
Freight Train: This book is an excellent way for parents to engage in a little low-stakes competitive chuggachuggachoochooing.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: I had to teach James how my dad read the line about the stomachache, because I just couldn’t hear it any other way. Now that he’s got it down, it’s a favorite. Tiny holes for tiny fingers to poke at help the attention span.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom: I mentioned this one on Instagram the other day and was met with lots of enthusiasm. ABC’s turned fun.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes: Faye loves illustrations with lots of faces and this book has them aplenty.
1. I sometimes fudge the language. Just slightly. I realize I have a limited timeline on this, but I’m taking full advantage.
2. We’ve finally started to graduate to regular-sized picture books. And—gasp—I’ve taken to recycling dust jackets with abandon. At first it felt like sacrilege. Now it feels smart. I’ve saved pieces of the prettiest to reuse for cards and gift tags, and recycled the rest.
Now the real point: What are your favorite children’s books?