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Bedtime Stories

ISSUE:  Fall 2019

 Illustration by Oscar Reyes

I can’t claim to have had a love affair with picture books when I was a boy. We read them, or at least my mother recalls falling asleep halfway through, but my parents weren’t really bookish types. Rather, storytelling was the thing—for my father especially, who rotated through a small cast of fumbling jungle animals and their clumsy mischief. My grandmother, meanwhile, was unmatched at tales of hardscrabble magical realism, mash-ups of nostalgia and improbable history and outright lies all rooted in her life in Colombia. It helped that the land itself was so far away, a distance that multiplied its mysteries.

And so it wasn’t until parenthood that I became a deeply committed fan of picture books, tilling slowly through a tradition that, in the decades since I first began reading, has evolved in ways I would never have expected.

When I read picture books with my kids, I go into character—a common move. Piggie has a voice, as does Gerald the elephant. My Frog is a paler Kermit, while Toad is drably congested. Performing a book is fun, of course, especially when the kids join in. But performing these books does something else, on a deeper level. It forces me to commit to the story. In this way, reading aloud becomes a kind of decompression, a mending, a brief atonement for being short-tempered, a respite from the anxieties of work or any other of the countless fears and distractions I’ve begun to juggle as a parent, ugly idiosyncrasies that didn’t reveal themselves until I’d had children. And while I’m not the kind of father I had hoped to be, reading to my children—reading with them—has become sacred, mainly because it is the only time that I am truly present. If I can stay awake, I can be in the book, be leaned on, hugged, undistracted by tasks undone, or uncertainties of things to come, concerns over money or health or a fracturing world order. In these holy minutes, we are in the moment, without desire for anything else. Thus, through the ritual of reading picture books together, I get to be a better parent—at least a little closer to the parent I want to be.

This issue, then, is a tribute to those minutes. It is a small testament to an indispensable literature, unique for its marriage of text and image and, among the best examples, its blend of innocence and bravery.  

At its heart are the bedtime stories themselves—tales of love, death, sea creatures, idols, journeys, a birthday, and more—bookended by essays for the grown-ups, which can be shared with or kept from the younger audience, according to curiosity and inclination. There’s a pullout mystery, a fortune-telling game, surprises here and there that make it something that is played with as well as read. An issue we want kids and grown-ups to experience together, one that becomes a well-worn part of the familiar mess of a life at home. 

The writer Mac Barnett, one of the most committed ambassadors for kids’ books today, and a gracious friend to this issue from the start, has aptly described the picture book as “social”—a book that, when shared, and when it clicks, becomes “part of family lore, the family language, their inside jokes. It’s really wild, the way a good picture book ends up knitting a family together.”

To that end: Happy reading.



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