Bedtime Books for Young Children

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008

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Last Updated 11/09/08


Goodnight Opus written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-10853-7); 1996 (0-316-10599-6) $7.99 pb

Opus the penguins, who's heard his favorite storybook one too many times, finds himself living a much-different story in this salute to the power of imagination. Starting as an amusing parody of Goodnight Moon, bleakly illustrated in grey tones, the book soon turns into a colorful adventure for Opus and the enormous purple beast he discovers under his bed, as they take an inspired flight around the world saying "goodnight" to some very unexpected things. Although the verse is often strained and hard to follow, the illustrations can be breathtaking, especially a fantastical vision of the Washington D.C. Lincoln Memorial statue doing a dive into the reflecting pool (with pieces of his foot crumbling off behind him) and a gorgeous picture in blue and black, of ancient Chinese sailors fishing for the moon. (4 & up)

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Clement Herd. HarperCollins (978-0694-00361-7 $8.99 board

I must have been one of the few children in the United States who was not brought up on Goodnight Moon; even so, just reading the words "And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush/And a quiet old lady who was whispering 'hush'" puts me immediately under its spell. With its cozy illustrations, quiet verse and gently mystery, it's not wonder this book has been a perennial favorite for 50 years. (6 months & up)

Sleepy ABC by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina. Lothrop, 1953; HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-024284-1) $16.99

Just what the title suggests, this is a gentle ABC lullaby, told in soothing rhyme. Muted illustrations inspired by patchwork-quilting techniques convey great tenderness, as kittens yawn, lambs close their eyes, and a mother lovingly kisses her child goodnight. (2-4)

Grandmother and I; Grandfather and I by Helen E. Buckley. Illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994 (0-688-12531-X;0-688-12533-6) $13.00 ea; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-688-17525-2; 0-688-17526-0) $5.95 pb, ea.

When the world of parents and big brothers and sisters becomes too fast and too hectic, that's when the children in these stories find that being with grandmother and grandfather is just right. Told from the viewpoint of a little boy in Grandfather and I and of a little girl in Grandmother and I, each book expresses a special kind of love and care a grandparent can give, whether it's going for a nice, slow walk with grandfather, where you can stop and look at things "just as long as we like," or having a comforting rock back and forth in grandmother's lap, in the big chair.

These beautifully crafted stories capture the feelings of the youngest child in a busy family, where quiet times and one-on-one attention is rare and treasured. Each story uses a comfortably repetitious, almost song-like rhythm, alternating with effective contrast between descriptions of everyday, stimulating family life, and repeated phrases that sum up the quiet happiness the children associate with being with grandmother and grandfather. Originally published in 1959 and 1961, the books have been reillustrated with exquisite line drawings, whose softly muted colors and gentle lines are in perfect sympathy with the text. Ormerod keeps an outstanding balance between familiarity and variety throughout the pictures, providing just enough visual action to hold the reader's interest. Simply ideal bedtime stories. (2-6)

The Baby's Bedtime Book selected and illustrated by Kay Chorao. Dutton, 1984; Puffin Unicorn, 1994 (0-14-055384-3) $5.99 pb

This is a warm and soothing collection of traditional lullabies and poems, dreamily illustrated in pastoral pen & ink and watercolor drawings. Designed to be read in a sitting, the book starts out with some livelier verses and then gets more and more sleepy, in both words and pictures, as it progresses; by the time the reader reaches "Now I Lay Me..." (a nonthreatening version) and "Day is Done," any listeners should be ready to nod off. (Yaaawwwwn.)

See You Soon Moon by Donna Conrad. Illustrated by Don Carter. Knopf, 2001 (0-440-41773-2) $6.99 pb

A vivid and endearing first-person narrative gives a special flavor to this story. About to begin a trip to grandma's house, a little boy says goodbye to many of his favorite things, including the moon--only to discover, to his delight, that the moon makes the entire trip along with him. His poetic, yet down-to-earth observations capture the quiet thrills of a nighttime journey, making this a wonderfully soothing bedtime book. Boldly tactile illustrations sometimes seem a bit crude, with a moon that seems to be made of cream cheese and characters that sport bright red, very round noses and eyes that cast shadows, but the evening landscape's cool greens and blues match the mood of the story well. (2-5)

Maisy's Bedtime written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0908-0) $3.99 pb

A down-to-earth bedtime routine for Maisy includes washing her face, brushing her teeth and using the toilet. Her favorite lovey Panda sits on his potty too. A nice, simple description of bedtime necessities, with Cousin's usual cheerful, childlike illustrations.

Sweet Dreams, Maisy written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2874-3) $12.99

Less down-to-earth than Maisy's Bedtime, which focuses on pragmatic bedtime routines like brushing teeth and using the toilet, this book gives Maisy a more poetic side. As the moon rises and the stars begin to shine, Maisy and her lovey Panda enjoy the view, then toddle off to bed. As Maisy sleeps, with little black cat cozy on her blanket, the book instructs the "silver moon and twinkling stars" to "shone your light on Maisy." The illustrations have a an extra touch of pretty too, with glowing night colors added to the usual chunky shapes and childlike dark outlines, and sparkly letters on the cover. (2-5)

Sweet Dreams of the Wild by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Illustrated by Katharine Dodge. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-180-1) $15.95; Wordsong, 2000 (1-56397-924-1) $8.95 pb

Written with a lyrically soporific combination of gentle, cozy words and exquisite images of nature, this collection of connected poems looks at different animals and insects as they sleep. Whether "curled under the moon and cradled in green" or "bundling furry-deep down for a long winters nap," each animal cuddles up tight "with sweet dreams of the wild." Carefully detailed wildlife illustrations in color pencil make the book's understated anthropomorphism seem perfectly real and natural. This is a lovely bedtime book that will lull both listeners and readers. (3-6)

Night's Nice by Barbara and Ed Emberley. Doubleday, 1962; Little, Brown, 2008 (978-0-316-06623-5) $12.99

"Ooh!" I said to myself, as I found the original copyright date for this book--1962--"THAT explains it." Although I have no memory of ever having seen Night's Nice before, its distinctive style immediately evoked a sense of nostalgia in me. Cartoony little pictures, heavily washed with bright watercolors... men smoking pipes, freckled-faced boys, Halloween costumes of red-nosed bums... this is all stuff of picture books of my childhood. These days, that white-bread look could be considered less nostalgic than outright dated.

Nonetheless, it remains an attractive book. A rhyming text describes some of the exciting and cozy pleasures of nighttime: "Night's nice for spooky Halloween make-believe, Night's nice for carols and snow Christmas Eve." As a good bedtime book should, it ends on an especially gentle note: "For kings and for kittens, For birds in a tree. Night's nice's for sleeping, For you and for me. So hop into bed, Turn over thrice/And whisper this softly: Night's nice, night's nice, night's nice." The wording is occasionally awkward and the scansion sometimes falters, but the overall feeling evoked is so comfortable, it's still pleasant to read aloud.

The pictures match the different moods of nighttime shown in the text, with a fiery, boldly orange Halloween night, a bright neon city night, a sleepy green and brown forest, and a dark, snowy Christmas Eve sparkling with dashes of brilliant lights.

My feelings about this book are a little mixed. It's certainly not what you're looking for if you want diversity or originality or sophistication. But in an odd way, the old-fashioned look comes across as intriguingly different, just because we don't see books that look like this much anymore. And it has a sincere sweetness that isn't at all coy or cloying. I think it will still find an appreciative audience. (2-6)

Hush, Little Baby illustrated by Shari Halpern. NorthSouth, 1997; 2007 (978-0-7358-2167-5) $6.95 pb

"Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring."
Children's lullabies are often strangely ambivalent in tone, so it's always interesting to see how an illustrator approaches them. I think Halpern made some good choices here, turning what's essentially a laundry list of potential disasters into a cozy picture book. Instead of sticking faithfully to the text, the pictures show all positive, sometimes surprising interactions: the baby (really a toddler) sings along with the mockingbird, swings on a diamond ring constellation, tickles the nose of the bull that joins him in the cart and rides on the back of the dog named Rover in a circus act. Each square collage illustration is framed by smaller squares that look like quilt pieces, each thematically linked to the main illustration; every picture has an individual blend of textures and colors, some looking jewel-toned and sparkling, others muted and homey. Though the scenes are sometimes exciting, the small size and simplicty of the pictures help keep the mood of the book mellow for bedtime.

An uncomplicated arrangement of the song is included at the end; the book could also be just read aloud, but it's such a lovely melody, it's worth learning if you don't already know it. (1-4)

When I'm Sleepy by Jane R. Howard. Illustrated by Lynne Cherry. Dutton, 1985

Featuring some of the most beguiling illustrations I've ever seen, this bedtime story is simply a love of a book, one that parents will want to read as much as children want to listen to it. As a little gitl imagine what it would be like to sleep as different animals do--standing up, perched on a branch, even hanging upside-down--the illustrations place her with the animals, being tenderly held by a raccoon, comfortably pillowed on a bear, and cozily curled up with a bird in its nest. The juxtaposition of the wild animals and the little girl, peacefully sleeping together, conveys a wonderful feeling of restful quiet and utter trust; the finely-drawn, natural-looking animals add believability to the fantasy. This is everything a bedtime book should be. * (1-5)

Sweet Dreams written and photographed by Kumiko Kajikawa. Henry Holt, 1999 (0-8050-5890-7) $15.95

The familiar theme of animals sleeping has perhaps never been as beautifully expressed as in this book of nature photographs. In repose, the natural grace and dignity of the animals becomes inexpressibly touching, from an orangutan stretched out comfortably "in a bed of leaves," to a pride of lions sleeping "wherever they please"--in this case, draped across tree trunks, with paws and tail nonchalantly dangling. Notes at the end explain more fully the facts suggested by the gentle rhyming text: lions can sleep wherever they please because they have no predators. * (2-4)

Water Beds by Gail Langer Karwoski. Illustrated by Connie McLennan. Sylvan Dell, 2005 (0-9764943-1-0) $15.95

For children who like nonfiction, this bedtime book offers an occasionally awkward but mostly pleasing combination of fact and fancy. A boy lying in bed hugging a stuffed dolphin--in a room enjoyably decorated entirely in marine themes--wonders what it would be like to sleep in the deep, deep sea. Glossy, highly-colored illustrations then show him sleep-swimming with orcas, curling up cozily on a harbor seal, and bobbing faceup like a walrus--always with his stuffed dolphin tucked nearby. The text soothingly describes some interesting and surprising facts about how marine animals sleep: "Sea otters doze above undersea kelp forests, wrapping the kelp strands around their tummies to anchor themselves in place. When it's very cold, they blanket their faces with furry front paws." For some reason, the pictures aren't completely consistent--the artist seems reluctant to depict the boy on his stomach, even when the animals clearly are--but the ones with the most similarities between animals and boy, such as when he is wrapped up in kelp with the otters, are truly charming. (4-8)

Cat is Sleepy written and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996 (0-374-31223-0) $4.95 board book

Poor Cat... he's so sleepy he can barely keep his eyes open. But every place he tries to sleep has some serious issues: the sink is cold and slippery, the brick fence is covered with other cats, and the cooking pot is just not comfortable. (Perhaps even a little frightening?) Thank goodness he finally finds a cozy place: a little girl's lap. Expressive, sharply-outlined illustrations of weary, droopy-eyed Cat, who can barely pad along by the last scene, make this simply worded story sparkle with fun; I especially love the picture of Cat looking with weary resignation at the fence that's covered, every inch, with sleeping cats. (10 months-3)

Shhhh! Everybody's Sleeping by Julie Markes. Illustrated by David Perkins. HarperCollins, 2005 (0-06-053790-6) $14.99

In a sleepy little town, everyone is curled up for the night. The librarian is sleeping with a book in one hand and her glasses in the other, as is her teddy bear; the policeman snores through the traffic whistle in his mouth, his counterpane covered in toy cars, traffic lights as his bedposts; the doctor cuddles his lovingly bandaged teddy in a hospital bed. So surely a sweet little boy should be sleeping too! Short, flowing rhymes make it easy to read this in a soothing voice, but both children and adults will find it hard to read without laughing at the charmingly absurd pictures. (2-6)

I Love You As Much... by Laura Krauss Melmed. Illustrated by Henri Sorenson. Lothrop, 1993 (0-688-11718-X) $14.00; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-002022-8) $12.95 board book

Picture books celebrating parental love have become very popular in recent years--with parents, at least. This tender bedtime story is clearly designed to tug at a mother's heartstrings, but will appeal to many children as well, using easy rhyme and simple metaphors to describe the love of animal mothers for their children: "Said the mother goat to her child, 'I love you as much as the mountain is steep'. Said the mother whale to her child, 'I love you as much as the ocean is deep.'" The book ends with a human mother holding an infant, saying, "Now sleep, child of mine, while the stars shine above--I love you as much as a mother can love." Soft-focused drawings attractively combine dreaminess with exquisite detailing, but both the illustration and the text may be a little sophisticated for very young children. This is a notebook-paper sized "lap" edition, a good choice of size for the low-contrast illustrations. (1-4)

Two Crows Counting by Doris Orgel. Illustrated by Judith Moffatt. Bantam, 1995 (0-553-09741-5) $13.95; (0-553-37573-3) $3.99 pb

Children can practice both their reading and their counting skills as they enjoy the simple rhymes of this story. A big and small crow fly across a nicely-crafted collage landscape, seeing all sorts of active things like seven herons wading, eight geese parading, nine farmers haying and ten children playing. But on the way home the ten children are snoozing, the nine farmers snoring, the eight geese resting and the seven herons nesting. Eventually the big crow and the tuckered out small crow also wind up fast asleep in their nest. With its gentle up-and-down rhythm, this is a comfortable and beguiling read which will also make a cozy bedtime book. (3 & up)

Can't Sleep written and illustrated by Chris Raschka. 1995; Orchard, 1999 (0-531-30201-6) OP

For those lonely nights when everyone else has fallen asleep, and it seems like you're the only person awake in the whole world, this tender book shows there will always be one friend around: "Now, when there is no sound/the moon can tell you feel frightened and are lonely./The moon will stay awake for you." As a little dog's family goes to bed one by one, leaving him awake and alone, the moon travels across the sky, turning herself to keep an eye on him and even kissing him good night. Sparely drawn illustrations help capture the forlorn feeling of hearing the last lights go out: as each family member falls asleep, his room fades into a blue background, leaving the little dog alone in his anxious square of bright yellow light. As he finally drifts off, comforted by the moon, each of the family bedrooms gradually becomes part of the starry night sky. Raschaka's unusual pictures have the splotchy abruptness of a rough draft, but there's nothing rough about this evocative design, or about the ingeniously drawn moon, whose face can be viewed in either of its traditional forms--a profile crescent or round full-face. With a gently syncopated text that accentuates the odd weightiness late night wakefulness gives to ordinary events, this book offers the best kind of reassurance: one based on understanding. * (2 & up)

Ten Sleepy Sheep by Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Susan Gaber. Candlewick, 2004 (0-763615-455) $15.99

Fall asleep by counting sheep, from 10 to 1. Short, soporific verses count down as ten playful sheep give in to slumber, one by one. Illustrations show a lively farm setting, growing darker and more peaceful with each page, until finally the last wakeful sheep nestles by her mama under a sky full of glowing stars and a full moon. (2-5)

K is for Kiss Good Night by Jill Sardegna. Illustrated by Michael Hays. Doubleday, 1994; Dell Picture Yearling 1996 (0-440-41218-8) $ 6.99 pb

As three young children from different families quietly get ready for bed, a soothing, alphabetic text evokes nighttime rituals and images: "pillow deep and downy, quilt pulled high beneath my chin, robe hanging on the bedpost, seeing shapes on the ceiling." The soft, impressionist pictures of cherubic-looking children get dimmer and more muted, as the children get cozier and closer to sleep. Fine just as a bedtime book, this is also a natural-feeling, unforced introduction to the progression of the alphabet. (2-4)

Night Shift Daddy by Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Melissa Iwai. Hyperion, 2000 (0-7868-0495-5) $14.99

A little girl's daddy works the night shift; while she sleeps, he sweeps. But still, they have plenty of special time together: a loving ritual for her bedtime, and then in the morning, the same loving ritual in reverse for his. Told in easy rhyme, this is an unusually playful take on working-class family life, offering just a hint of the harder side of the situation: "He doesn't know I watch him go/into the cold, the dark, the snow--down to the bus stop, bundled up,/holding his thermal coffee cup." Paintings in deep, rich colors add layers to the story: the little girl is mostly big round eyes, a button nose and a smile, but the father's face is given more depth and detail, allowing empathetic readers a glimpse into his weariness and the loneliness of his job. But most children will simply enjoy this book for its affectionate tone and the highly satisfying turnabout of the bedtime ritual, in which the daughter gets to put the daddy to bed. (2-6)

The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson. Illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 2008 (978-0-618-86244-3) $17.00

The cover of The House in the Night is a scratchboard illustration of a dark little house in a dark little forest; a dog peeps out the open window, stars glimmer, a stylized moon smiles above. The combination of plump, rounded shapes and scattered spots of glowing yellow lights amid blackness gives the scene an enticing air of cozy mystery. That feeling continues throughout the book, as a little girl and her dog are given "the key to the house." In the house burns a light, in that light rests a bed, on that bed rests a book, and in that book waits... a flying adventure in the starry dark.

A terse, cumulative text sucks us into this story, eager to see what each new page will bring. The pictures (by the illustrator of Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, winner of the 2006 Cybil for poetry) continue the theme of peaceful wondering: amidst surroundings made cozy with cats and flowers and teddy bears, and constant touches of yellow light to highlight the quietness of the primary black & white, the little girl is constantly on the move, seeking something. As she has her adventure, flying through the night sky, the pictures grow more exotic and surprising in each scene, showing giant, other-worldly flowers and a moon beaming with far-flung rays of light.

Both text and pictures wind themselves back up perfectly, retracing a path back to warmth and familiarity, leaving readers satisfied and comforted and at peace with the night. What more could you ask for from a bedtime book. * (2-6)

Forest Bright, Forest Night by Jennifer Ward. illustrated by Jamichael Henterly. Dawn, 2005 (978-1-58469-089-4) $7.95 board

Count to ten twice, first with a forest by day, then with a forest by night. In the day, a deer splashes, two bear cubs tumble and three woodpeckers tap; at night three opposums peek, four foxes prowl and five skunks amble. Despite the many active verbs--"chatter and chase... chipmunks race/strut and wobble... turkeys gobble"--the short rhyming text reads very soothingly, in conjunction with the naturalistic but slightly dreamy pictures, making this book seem just right for bedtime. On the other hand, you might want to allow more time to explore some of the captivating detail in the illustrations. The day and night sections each contain the other's opposite: an owl sleeps while the deer splashes during the day; at night, the "owl eyes search" while the deer curls up to sleep. The animals blend intriguingly with their natural surroundings; I particularly like the woodpecker that's just barely visible through a knothole. Perhaps best of all, each page has its number somewhere blended into the background: a sleeping salamander's tail curves into a six, moss on a log forms an eight. These pictures are so packed with interest, the book is probably even better in its larger picture book form. (2-8)

Sleepy Book by Charlotte Zolotow. Illustrated by Stefano Vitale. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-027873-0) $15.95

Originally published in 1958, this is a gently lyrical celebration of sleep as it is practiced by many creatures: spiders sleeping "like small ink spots in the middle of their lacy webs," the snowy crane "standing on one long leg like a flower on its stem." I'm not familiar with the original illustrations but the new ones are beauties, luminous soft and bright colors on a wood grain background, with simple shapes to complement the soporific invitation of the text.

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