Friday 7 September 2012

On Bedtime Stories

When my daughters were small I used to read aloud to them every evening, just as my mother used to read to me, and her mother to her, I dare say…generation before generation.  It’s something I miss, now they’re all grown up.  No matter what sort of day you’ve had, how cross and tired you may be, there’s something lovely about snuggling up with your children on the sofa, or on the edge of one of their beds (strictly alternating between younger daughter’s bedroom and older daughter’s bedroom: ‘it’s my turn tonight!’), and reading a book chapter by chapter.

Since they were keen readers anyway, I used to choose books to read aloud which I thought they might not actually pick for themselves.  So instead of contemporary fiction I chose older books, things I’d loved as a child, books which might develop slowly, in that leisurely, let’s-take-time-over-the-first-chapter way which we’re not allowed to write any more, since children’s attention spans are now supposedly so short.  Well, children love to be read to, and they rarely get bored while they’re cosied up next to you, the centre of your attention, listening to a lovely story competently read. It’s completely different from struggling along by themselves. Reading aloud is just a huge pleasure all round.

And so together we read all sort of classics.  The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Hobbit.  Black Beauty, Brendon Chase, The Little Grey Men.  The Brothers Lionheart, Finn Family Moomintroll, Martin Pippin in the Daisyfield. The Enchanted Castle, Mary Poppins, The Bogwoppit. The Land of Green Ginger, The Little House on the Prairie, A Christmas Carol.  The King of the Golden River, The King of the Copper Mountains, the Chronicles of Narnia. Anne of Green Gables, Tuck Everlasting, The Search for Delicious.  And many, many more.

Of course not every single book was a success.  Neither child cared for Anne of Green Gables, to my surprise; and they never thought much of Jo March, either.  Are today's children so used to independent, strong-minded heroines that flaming-haired Anne and hot-tempered Jo have paled in comparison?  Both daughters regarded the March sisters as a bunch of wimpish goody-two-shoes who gave away their Christmas breakfast.  And that was that.

One child loved The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge; the other was less keen.  One went a bundle on The Treasure Seekers; her sister felt lukewarm about it.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was an utter failure.  I loved that book when I was a child (I remember when I first saw it, in a row of children’s books in the dark, glass-fronted bookcase on the landing of some farmhouse where we’d gone on holiday), but it fell completely flat as a read-aloud.  I don’t know why.  Maybe Ransome’s meticulous descriptions of how to do things – whether sailing a boat, building a campfire, or setting up a pigeon post – work better on the page?  At any rate, this was the one and only book I ever read aloud which really did bore them to the point where I gave up, and we found something ‘more interesting’.  Even the Narnia stories, which they enjoyed hearing, turned out not to be books they went back to re-read. But they did go back, again and again, to read many of these books and authors by themselves.

There’s something quite emotional about reading to your children, especially stories with which you feel a special connection.  Books I read with total composure as a child can now bring tears to my eyes, and I have developed a family reputation for doing a wobble on the last page. Black Beauty in old age, dreaming of the past: 

‘My troubles are all over and I am at home; and often, before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple trees.’

Or:  ‘They thought he was dead.  I knew he had gone to the back of the north wind.’

Or: ‘It is autumn in Moomin valley – for how else can spring come back again?’

I’d be struggling to keep my voice level, and tears would come brimming up. The children pounced on this. They would sit up as I turned the last page, watching me like hawks for any signs of sentiment. They regarded it as funny but embarrassing. “Oh Mum… Why do you always cry?”  And this made me self-conscious, till, conditioned by their expectations, I’d be brimming up – and laughing too – on the last page of almost any book I read aloud, even ones which weren’t sad at all.  I reckoned it was their fault for staring at me and making me worse. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t mind then, and I don’t mind now.

For it can't be a bad thing, can it - to let our children see how stories move us?


  1. My little boy is five and I have just started this amazing process of sharing longer chapter books with him. I agree wholeheartedly with choosing older, more challenging material and I have shared two Narnia books with him already.

    A big suprise was how much my Star Wars, super hero obsessed boy fell in love with Milly Molly Mandy too ! "I'm so sad it's finished|" he said when we came to the end of the omnibus edition :) SO looking forward to when he's a little older and I can introduce him to all my old favourites.

  2. My father also used to tell bedtime stories - often a serial version - to my two sisters. Ther was a long story that spanned overy many months about two intrepid young travellers in a hot air balloon. I just wish we had written that down but, as you say 0 but in reverse, it may not have worked nearly so well on the page.

  3. Wonderful post :) My daughters love bedtime stories and so do I, and I too am revisiting the books I loved as a child... I always buckle on the "... oh please, just one more chapter mum..." and it gets later and later! My elder daughter devours books in bed as well now at a terrific rate which is great :)

  4. Nilly Molly Mandy! There's a blast from the past! And Cat, yes, there's a whole other post there about 'made-up' bedtime stories. VERY important. Windsong, I'd buclke too - 'one more chapter...' We would all want it!

  5. MILLY - (where did that 'N' creep in?)

  6. It IS interesting to see what classics have dated and what still works. The Hobbit definitely does. My brother read it to his little boy. One day I had taken Max out and happened to have a copy with me, so I read the chapter he was up to, in the bright sunshine. But being read to is nice whatever age you are. That must be why talking books are so popular. :-)

  7. What a wonderful post. I loved your stories and the pictures of the old books.
    I also miss reading to my kids. We used to do it sometimes in the mornings, too. And then when my son started going to a high school 30 miles away, and couldn't drive himself yet, we would listen to books on tape. Those stories were the best bookends for his school day. Calming.
    And we did the same as you - read them books that they may not have ever picked up themselves.
    Some of the very best times of our lives. I've kept a lot of the books, and am so fond of those old friends.
    Thanks so much for this.