bedtime book

April 2nd is International Children’s Book Day, an annual event that celebrates reading, literacy, and the million-and-a-half wonderful things about children’s literature. So, as I was trying to think of something to say on the topic (that I haven’t already said), I kept coming back to one recurring thought – I LOVE READING IN BED.

I do. I really do.

The Under-Appreciated Art of Bedtime Reading

Normally, when we read in bed, we’re both in our pajamas and firmly tucked in, but we don’t invite photographers to those events…

I don’t think beds get enough credit from the publishing industry. They are the IDEAL environments for reading, particularly for reading with your kids. Case in point: There’s a new start-up company in New York, Casper, which sells mattresses made of latex and memory foam – a friend has one and digs it. But the thing that I LOVE about this company that is they not only send you your bed, but, with each mattress, they send you a book to read IN your new bed. (And you can sign-up for email bedtime reading updates on their site too.) They KNOW that their mattresses have more than one use.

I think that’s genius. I mean, I know that’s ultimately just a marketing campaign, but it’s a GREAT ONE. Why don’t more people market books and beds together? Beds and books should always be seen as symbiotic entities. Yes, my kid reads everywhere — at the breakfast table, on the toilet, on a shelf in one of our closets that she calls her “reading nook.” Reading isn’t only for bedtime, BUT some of our best, most memorable reading moments have occurred in bed.

When I bought the final Harry Potter book the morning it was released, I retreated into our guest room, sprawled out on the bed, and only came out for bathroom breaks and to loudly annoy my wife with comments like “OH MY GOD, YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE WHO JUST DIED!” When I was first introducing our infant daughter to books, we started in our rocker next to the crib (which was intimate and amazing), but I still remember the day she got her first big-girl bed and I could finally squeeze into it with her and read a pile of our favorite picture books until I could feel her fall asleep on my right shoulder. (Her side of the bed is right, mine is left. No idea why, but we never deviate.)

My daughter has been introduced to Hogwarts, Narnia, Oz, and thousands of other precious literary landscapes in her little twin bed, with a hodgepodge pile of pillows behind us, her discounted Muppets sheets from Target below us, and her fire-engine red IKEA desk-lamp next to us, giving us just enough mood lighting to always try for “one chapter more.”

You’ll see a lot of talk online about the importance of creating safe reading spaces for kids and I couldn’t agree more. Kids needs places where they really feel comfortable to curl up with a good book and let themselves explore. But, personally, I think beds are often overlooked as reading spaces, which is a shame. Not only are beds comfortable – sometimes they’re too comfortable and you do more sleeping than reading (I get that criticism) – but they also represent these inviting, safe places, where we spend almost a quarter of our lives. We’re open in bed, we relax in bed, we let our guards down in bed.

Those are just a few of the reasons why bedtime reading with your kids is so important. It’s that symbiotic relationship between bed and books. Lying in bed can make you more open to the ideas, images, and emotions of a book, BUT the right book can also act as the perfect guide into a really restful night of sleep. The rhythms of reading are soothing – they can both expand your mind and relax it. Reading in bed can either give you a mental workout that knocks you out or it can give you a mental massage that lulls you into a deep, deep sleep. I will say that, without a doubt, my daughter always, ALWAYS sleeps better if we read to her before bed.

So, for International Children’s Book Day, here’s what I want you to do – Grab a children’s book, an old favorite, and read it in bed tonight. If you have kids, great. Revisit a classic with them and enjoy the togetherness. If you don’t have kids, no big deal. Find one of your childhood favorites and just try to lose yourself in the images and cadences and the memories of reading in your pajamas.

OH, and, if you are a parent, make sure that your kid has enough pillows, a good bed-side lamp, and a flashlight, so they can keep reading long after you told them to stop. (Some things are more important than sleep.)

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WHAT IF YOU CAN’T THINK OF A GOOD BOOK TO READ AT BEDTIME?

Fair question. Here are a few of my favorite bedtime kids’ books. Some are soothing, some are beautiful, some are uproariously funny and actually wake your kid up, which sounds counter-productive (which it is), but it’s a whole lot of fun too… [read the rest of the post…]

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B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

Take that, Caldecott committee!

One of the many reasons why I love picture books is because they’re one of the few forms of literature that actually anticipate that you won’t be reading them alone. Sure, there are picture books that are made for kids to read on their own, but there are also those wonderful picture books that are designed specifically for parents to read aloud to their children. They’re almost more like a play-script than a traditional book. It’s this lovely little monologue, a screenplay with storyboards included, a script for your onstage debut, performing your lines for a bedtime audience of one. (Or two or however many kids you have.) And, if you’re looking for a great script for your next storytime performance, I would definitely recommend B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures. Even if the book did made me scream “Blork!” and admit to my daughter that I’m really a “robot monkey.”

Let me explain…

You probably know Novak from NBC’s The Office, so I know what you’re thinking – celebrity author. It’s a total vanity project, right? NOPE. This is a great, great book, which isn’t that surprising because Novak released a collection of short stories earlier this year, One More Thing, which, I have to say, was excellent. So, we’ve established that the guy’s a good writer, but what’s remarkable about The Book with No Pictures is how well Novak understands the nuances of a great read-aloud book.

B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

I’m a what-now?

Any really, really amazing kids’ read-aloud book, first and foremost, has to turn the kids into engaged listeners. They can’t be passive. They have to be part of the performance. How do you do that? You give them POWER, or, at the very least, the illusion of power. Look at Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The book opens with the bus driver handing over his authority to the listening children, telling them “whatever you do, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.” The parent then takes over the role of the curious pigeon and, while they get to ham it up as the pigeon, the kids participate by screaming “NO!”

Or look at perhaps the best read-aloud book EVER, Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a genius bit of reverse psychology. Grover appears and essentially tells the listening kids, “If you turn the page, terrible, TERRIBLE things will happen!” (Which might be the best incentive for reading I’ve ever heard.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

Good advice that kids never listen to…

As I’ve mentioned, 826 Michigan’s Don’t Stay Up So Late is a brilliant book, a “treasury of bedtime stories written for children by children” that was crafted with an obvious sense of affection and pride by both its publishers and student authors. But, despite all my praise, I don’t really know if I’ve been able to properly convey how much this anthology is packed with impressive details and inspired ideas. Don’t Stay Up So Late is a book that just begs for you to linger and appreciate it. So, in order to make sure that you truly get a sense of what this book is all about (and to encourage more of you to buy it), here are ten completely amazing items, details, and flourishes you can find within the pages of Don’t Stay Up So Late:

1. The book’s dedicationDon't Stay Up So Late

2. This disclaimer on the copyright pageDon't Stay Up So Late

3. The handsome title page illustrationDon't Stay Up So Late

4. Section headings like this:Don't Stay Up So Late [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

No one tells better bedtime stories than kids…

Reading at bedtime is a big deal in our house. My wife and I alternate putting our daughter down each night and our nightly rituals always involve reading before she goes to bed. Sometimes she reads to us. Most nights, we’ll either read her two or three picture books or a few chapters from longer kid-friendly novels. (We’re reading a lot of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan lately.) The bedtime story ritual is very, very important to our family, That said, even though we have literally read HUNDREDS of night-time books to our daughter over the years, I’m confident in saying that the hands-down coolest bedtime book we’ve ever bought for her is Don’t Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children, an AMAZING collection of stories, published by 826 Michigan, that was entirely authored by elementary school students.

Are you not convinced that a grade school kid could write an engaging bedtime story? Here’s the first story in the anthology, written by a first-grader:"The Alien in the Attic" by Zachary Smith

When I woke up I heard a rat-a-tat-tat. I went straight down the hallway and turned right and opened the attic door. I saw a green alien. The alien had eight eyes and four arms. He could make things in one minute. I grabbed him. He punched me in the nose. I called the army but the army didn’t believe me. I put him in the basement. He ran up the stairs and I picked him up, put him back, and put a gate up. I gave him some food. I wanted to keep him. I wanted to keep him forever.

The End. That’s the whole story. Admit it – that story was ten times more engaging, heartfelt, and AWESOME than 95% of the movie tie-in, Disney, or kidlit spin-off picture books that your kid begs you to buy at Target. It’s direct and honest and Don’t Stay Up So Late is FILLED with stories just like that – stories with titles like “Supersnake,” “A Cow and a Mouse at Dance Class,” “The Super Dog That Helps People,” “The Mermaid Disappeared?”, “Dr. Jell-o’s Jell-o Plan,” and “Tiny’s Tale,” to name a few.

The bedtime stories in Don’t Stay Up So Late are overflowing with exuberant, imaginative storytelling leaps, the kinds of ingenious flights of fantasy that always seem to crop up when a kid sets his mind to tell you a story. As a parent, I found the stories in the collection to be immediately endearing and couldn’t help feeling both proud for the kids and grateful to 826 Michigan for attempting to catch such lightning in a bottle. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth

Perfect for Tollbooth obsessives…

Back on September 20th, we celebrated Building a Library’s first anniversary and announced that, the following week, I was finally going to start reading The Phantom Tollbooth – the book that inspired this blog – to my almost six-year-old daughter. And then… I took the following week off. Anti-climatic, I know, but it was a crazy week with swim classes and TWO soccer games and I was exhausted and blocked and I apologize. But, now that all my excuses are out on the table, I DID start reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter last week and, so far, it’s been a pretty positive experience.

Let me state up front that I was a little worried that my daughter was too young for The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster expertly plays with language and various abstract concepts throughout the book and I was concerned that aspects of the text would go over her head. As far as I can remember, I probably first encountered The Phantom Tollbooth when I was eight or nine, so I will admit that I am (still) concerned that I might be trying to introduce the novel to my daughter at too early an age. But, regardless of those concerns, I wanted to give Phantom Tollbooth a shot in our coveted bedtime reading slot last week and I’m going to periodically give updates on how the reading is going so far.

I’m calling this series “Phantom Tollbooth: First Read” and I’m planning to structure the updates in a similar style to the re-read or rewatch series that you can find on Tor.com or The Onion‘s AV Club. For those unfamiliar, in those series, the websites pick a book or a movie and a person episodically blogs their reaction to revisiting those works. For example, the blogger might post their ongoing reaction to rewatching all three seasons of Arrested Development or re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, chapter-by-chapter.

For Phantom Tollbooth, I’m going to adopt a chapter-by-chapter model, although some nights, we’ll be reading multiple chapters. For our first week, we started slow, only making it through the first four chapters. In the future, we may be moving through the book at a different pace, largely determined by what we’ve got going on that week. (Fair Warning: A trip to NYC will limit our progress this weekend.) I’ll give a quick summary of the chapter, my thoughts, my daughter’s reactions, and I might even toss in a few pieces of trivia from Leonard S. Marcus’ fantastic The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth as well.

Are we all set? Excuses made and plans delineated? Great. And, with that, let us begin…

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH FIRST READ: CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 – “Milo” and “Beyond Expectations”

CHAPTER ONE: “MILO”

“I do hope this is an interesting game, otherwise the afternoon will be so terribly dull.” – Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Chapter One

Santa got my letter!

The opening passages of The Phantom Tollbooth were what sold me on the book as a kid. In a few short paragraphs, Norton Juster wonderfully captures the itchy, nagging boredom that can easily consume a child in the wrong frame of mind. I love comedian Louis C.K.’s inspired riff on how “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” and it shares some nice thematic parallels to initial mindset of Milo, the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth. To quote Juster:

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’s bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have.

It’s an incredibly powerful opening and, after reading into it a few paragraphs, I turned to my daughter and asked, “Do you ever feel like that?” “Yes,” she replied. “I get bored a lot.” [read the rest of the post…]

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How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse

My daughter BEGGED me to find this book at our library.

And we’ve come to the end of our week! (Cue the Rebecca Black song.) Welcome to the FIFTH installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, our new series in which we spend an entire business week profiling the various books that my five-year-old daughter and I checked out from our local library last week. We came home with five books and we’ve been listing the books in the order they were selected, so today we’ll talking about the fifth and final book we chose to take home with us. Our fifth title was a chapter book – How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowell, which follows the “heroic misadventures” of a young Viking-in-training named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III.

You might be familiar with the name “How to Train Your Dragon” from the successful (and actually very good) 2010 DreamWorks animated movie, which was based on the original book.

But before I start talking about How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, you need to know THREE things:

1. The How to Train Your Dragon movie was a very, very loose adaptation of the original book. (There are some significant differences.)

2. We have not actually finished reading How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. We’ve only had it out for a few days and it’s a 272-page book. My daughter and I read a few chapters at bedtime most nights (but I don’t out her down every night). So… I won’t be talking about many specifics regarding How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

3. I absolutely love – LOVE – the How to Train Your Dragon series. For me, it will forever be the first chapter book series that my daughter ever fell in love with, which has won it a very special place in my heart.

Are we all set on my three very important things? (Insert self-mocking emoticon here.) I opened with those because I really wanted to establish exactly why my five-year-old was checking out the fourth chapter in a series of juvenile novels for young readers. It’s because she’s over the moon for the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and she’s INSISTING that we read every single book in the series.

How to Train Your Dragon series

The first eight books in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series. The ninth book – “How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword” – is not pictured.

So, how did we start reading the How to Train Your Dragon series? Well, long-time readers of this blog will remember that, in the past, my daughter would never, ever let me read longer books with her at bedtime. At the time, the longest title we’d ever read to her at bedtime was probably one of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books. But several parents we knew were already reading their children chapter books and early YA novels at bedtime, raving about how their kids were just LOVING the first Harry Potter books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and so on. And my wife and I – we wanted in on that action. It just sounded like way too much fun. [read the rest of the post…]

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A Ball for Daisy

A Ball for Daisy: Winner of this year's Caldecott Medal

Earlier this week, Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal, the very prestigious annual award for the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Earlier this evening, I was flipping through Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy as my daughter brushed her teeth and worrying that she wasn’t going to like it.

Why was I worried? Because, recently, my daughter, who turned five in November, has started to gravitate towards older and older skewing reading material. She still loves picture books and even has a few board books that she refuses to pack away with the rest of her toddler toys, but, lately, she’s shown increasing interest in early readers and chapter books. We’d just spent the past two days reading her the 128-page Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst and Lane Smith, and she’d loved it. It was a huge hit. (It’s both a beautiful and a hysterically funny chapter book. I definitely recommend it.) My wife and I began thinking, “OK, this is where we’re headed. More Mercy Watson, less Eric Carle.”

So, as I flipped through A Ball for Daisy, a wordless picture book with big, expressive illustrations that even the youngest of readers could appreciate, all I could think was “She might be too old for this.”

BUT, as frequent readers of this blog will recognize, there is one seemingly constant and unchangeable rule of parenting that I never seem to be able to escape. What’s that rule? The fact that – when I make a parental decision or even when I speak a particularly declarative sentence – I am almost always, always WRONG.

A Ball for Daisy

They're so cute together. I hope nothing ever happens to that ball...

My five year old didn’t just LIKE A Ball of Daisy. She adored it. This little 32-page book, with no words at all, brought out so many emotions from her in a short bedtime reading that I could barely believe it. And, once I finished reading, she was more animated and chatty about what she’d just read than I’d seen her be in a long time. It was one of the best bedtime reads we’d had in weeks and it all came from a book that five minutes earlier that I assumed she wouldn’t like. (My great apologies, Caldecott committee. I shouldn’t have doubted you.)

I think the reason that A Ball for Daisy worked so well for my daughter – and why it probably works so well for other children too – is that it very skillfully takes its reader on an emotional journey. The simple, yet achingly deep story is all about a cute dog named Daisy who LOVES her big red ball. How do we know she loves it? Because, in Raschka’s expressive drawings, you can see Daisy’s face light up and almost hear her tail wag whenever she’s near the ball. The kicker is the beautiful moment when Daisy, while trying to fall asleep, decides to cuddle up to her red ball on the couch. (Trust me. Cuddles go over HUGE with kids. My daughter let out an audible “Aww” at that part.)

Daisy’s owner takes Daisy and her ball on a walk to the park, and Daisy meets a new brown dog, who excitedly jumps in to play with Daisy’s ball. And then the unthinkable happens – the ball pops. It explodes in a little red burst and, suddenly, it’s gone. All that’s left is some red plastic, deflated and broken on the ground. [read the rest of the post…]

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Every time I read a new book to my daughter at bedtime, there’s always this unspoken hope that the book will really connect with my small, trapped-under-her-covers audience and maybe become a recurring favorite. At the most, I’m hoping for a big smile, a “that was good!” affirmation, or perhaps even the highest compliment she can pay – a pre-emptive request to read the book again tomorrow night. But, very, very rarely do I get a really BIG, really explosive reaction to a bedtime book, and, when that actually happens, it is a rare and wondrous thing to behold. And I got that precious over-the-top reaction just the other night when we sat down to read Press Here by Hervé Tullet.

Press Here

If you're using an iPad, go ahead and try pressing this to see if anything happens. It won't, but give it a shot.

It was a monster hit, a sensation. We literally had to read it three times before she’d even let me take it out of her hands.

And it’s a fairly amazing book because it doesn’t wow its audience with a story or with particularly flashy illustrations, but rather it draws readers in with interactivity, with humor, and with that drive that comes with all printed books – the drive to see what happens next, to see what’s happening on the next page.

While discussing Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret a few years ago (which is another astonishing read that you should definitely include in your home library), Roger Sutton, the editor in chief of Horn Book Magazine, wrote this eloquent description of the power of page-turns that has stuck with me ever since.

A page-turn can be a surprise sprung by the reader, a powerful narrative element that physically involves us in the story. It tells us what power is particular to books. As far as I can figure, the printed book is the only medium that requires such a manipulation of gravity and that asks us, repeatedly, to go on.

Hervé Tullet definitely understands the power of the page-turn surprise, and Press Here utilizes page-turns exceedingly well, using every post-turn reveal to transform his picture book into a living, breathing interactive experience. [read the rest of the post…]

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I kicked off the blog with a book that my daughter probably won’t read for several years, so it seems only fair that I shift over to a book she’s actually read – in fact, one of the first books we ever read to her. I don’t entirely remember how we got a copy of Taro Gomi’s My Friends, but the person who gave it to us deserves an annual thank you note. It’s that good.

My Friends by Taro Gomi

My Friends by Taro Gomi

Japanese author-illustrator Taro Gomi is probably best known as the mad genius behind the ultimate potty book, Everybody Poops – which, strangely enough, we’ve never read – and he also makes the coolest coloring books you’ve ever seen. (Seriously. If your kid is into coloring, Gomi’s Scribbles and Doodle books can’t be beat.) Gomi has additionally created some truly wonderful picture books for younger readers, and My Friends is one of our favorites.

It’s an ideal bedtime book. Truth be told, I literally read My Friends to my daughter at bedtime every single night I put her to bed from when she was five months old until she was about 15-months-old. Which I realize makes me sound fairly obsessive-compulsive, but so be it. Maybe my daughter’s incentive to learn to talk was her burning desire to ask me to change-up the bed-time reading. (“Daddy, STOP.”) But I don’t really think so. We still read My Friends from time to time even now, although now it functions as more of an “I Can Read” book than a cuddly bedtime book. (Pause as I mourn the passage of time to the tune of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”)

What’s so great about My Friends? It has a lot to offer in a very elegant package. The story is simple – we follow a young girl as, on each double-page spread, she tell us what she’s learned from the world around her. The majority of the lessons she’s learned come from animals. “I learned to walk with my friend the cat… I learned to jump from my friend the dog… I learned to climb from my friend the monkey…” As the book goes on, we see what the girl has learned from a variety of animal pals, from books, from teachers, from classmates, and it all ends with the “awww”-worthy declaration that “I learned to love from a friend like you.”

Taro Gomi Board Book Box Set

Boxed set of three Taro Gomi board books, including “My Friends”

Gomi’s illustrations are bright, charming, and have this underlying sense of fun and wonder that my daughter really responded to. Even when she was only a few months old, this is a book that made her light up. I mean, yes, I think My Friends is really well done, but the real reason I love it is because of the response it elicited from my kid. She’d smile and sit calmly while I read through the thick cardboard pages of the board book, occasionally trying to flip the pages herself. As she got older, we’d add animal sounds to the pages with animal illustrations, and the book evolved into a call-and-response story where, after I’d finish reading the page, she’d give me the correct corresponding animal noise (her gorilla was the best) or some finger movements we worked out to mirror the actions on the page. (Few things are funnier than watching a seven-month-old try to make her fingers run, jump, and/or karate kick.)

Plus, as a first-time father who is now aggressively aware of gender disparity in relation to his sweet little girl (irony noted), I really loved reading her a book with a strong female character who is out there in the world, learning from nature, kicking, jumping, exploring, excelling at school, and being affectionate, all at the same time.

[read the rest of the post…]

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