One of the key times of day when children and adults share picture books is bedtime. In many families the sharing of a book or two is part of the bedtime routine that winds a child down ready for sleep. A bath, a mug of milk, teeth cleaning, then snuggle together and open up another world in which to share some story experience.
The book might be funny or moving or interesting or comforting, or a combination of any of those things. It might be a new experience, or it may well be a favourite one being shared in same way for the umpteenth time. Whether wild or serious, familiar or new, parents often appreciate a picture book story ending with the characters settling down to sleep. I’ve done it myself. You Choose and Just Imagine and Three Little Ghosties all end with a last spread showing the characters tucked-up in bed.
But should the whole book have the single aim of sending your child to sleep?
There’s been a lot of exposure recently for a self-published runaway bestseller picture book whose success is down to the book’s ability to put a child to sleep.
The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep is a strange picture book to read. You are given instruction at the start as to how to read the text, emphasising certain words, inserting your child’s name, drawing-out other phrases. The story text is very much longer than most picture book texts. It takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to read (look on youtube if you want to hear it in action).
The book's pictures are, well, amateurish (even in the new Ladybird edition), but you are told that you shouldn’t really be showing the pictures to your child in any case. They need to be lying down, ready to sleep. The cognitive tricks used by the Swedish behavioural psychologist author of this book, Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin, make the child keep focussing on the rabbit character’s aim through the story; going to sleep. The linking of names makes the child identify with Roger the rabbit (to be said slowly as Roooooggggeeeer), and the repetition of the words ‘sleep’ and ‘drowsy’ and ‘now’ and ‘yawn’ all do their work. ‘The eyelids are as heavy as stones, heavy, heavy, so heavy,’ says Roger. It’s an odd text to read, and the story is boring. That’s the point. If it was exciting, it would wake the child up.My children are grown-up now, but I quite see the place for this tool of a book. It can be a painless way for adults to get young children to sleep with minimal fuss. But, please, could they be read a proper picture book story before you start on that one? A story with characters one cares about, with humour and surprises and delight and things to think about? And maybe that sort of book can lead on to happy slumber too?
There are numerous picture books with sleeping as a theme, but which also offer really good stories and wonderful illustrations. I fondly remember A Song For Little Toad, written by wonderful Vivian French and illustrated with great beauty by Barbara Firth. In that story we hear the lullaby songs of different riverside animals and birds, none of which work until Mummy Toad sings her own song to her little one. ‘Croak, croak, croak. Croak, my little darling’, I seem to remember.
That book is now out of print (please bring it back, Walker Books!), but Barbara Firth again, this time working with Martin Waddell, also created the great favourite Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? in which Big Bear takes Little Bear outside the cave to look at the stars in the sky before Little Bear is able to settle to sleep.
I’ve recently discovered The World Champion Of Staying Awake by Sean Taylor and Jimmy Liao in which little Stella has problems getting her naughty toys off to sleep, and of course by the end is herself fast asleep, as are they.
And there's Ed Vere's lovely new Max At Night as he tries to find the moon to tell it goodnight. Full of wonderfully sleepy monotone pictures.
My own experience was that you could bore a child to sleep with almost any text if you read it in a boring way, and maybe that boring characteristic is what makes the classic Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown such a lasting favourite?
What are your favourite bedtime picture books, and why?