I am of the belief that you never outgrow bedtime stories. Reading a book while snuggling in bed is one of those precious, treasured moments that is so wonderful you can’t believe that it can possibly be free. I was one of the lucky ones whose mother read to them not only at bedtime, but at lunch as well, and I remember always looking forward to both lunch and bedtime just to pick up the story and go a little further. Even when I had supposedly “outgrown” bedtime stories, for years I would bring my blanket and pillow into my younger siblings’ bedroom, just to have all my troubles disappear for a while as I listened to my mother read Little House on the Prairie or Arleta Richardson’s Grandma’s Attic series. Here’s a list of bedtime stories that grown-ups, children, and teenagers can all relate to and enjoy hearing over and over again.
Anything by Patrick F. McManus: I was first introduced to Patrick McManus’s quirky, dry, humorous stories by my husband, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of them sooner. I devoured one book after the other, and nearly every single story almost brought me to tears. Anyone who’s ever loved or hated the outdoors can relate to the many outdoor adventures and excursions recounted by McManus in these collections, and they can be read in any order.
The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder: These books are the first to come to mind when I think “bedtime story.” There is so much to love about this series: the comforting, safe, and secure presence of Pa and Ma; the childhood memories of holidays and celebrations and delicious food; the capturing of the different seasons of life and Laura’s experience of growing up and becoming a teacher and a wife and mother. Laura is a character that will always be with me, and seeing her world through her eyes in the vivid descriptions and beautiful imagery felt almost like time travel.
All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot: One of my favorite presents I remember receiving as a child was a beautiful illustrated book of animal stories by James Herriot. The stories were not all happy, but they were full of love, humor, and truth and I quickly fell in love with the animals and the never-dull life of an English country veterinarian. In college I picked up the first book to escape from some duller reading, and I became absolutely hooked, to the point where I was scheduling bedtime reading along with my school work. I can’t help but be fascinated by the medical details about the various illnesses and conditions he treats, and how every farmer and patient is a unique case or a mystery. Herriot weaves his own life into the stories as well, but the focus remains on the animals, and it turns out, animals have a great deal to teach and share with us. Fun sidenote: A few years ago, my grandmother asked me for book recommendations and I mentioned how much I enjoyed James Herriot, only to find out that he is one of her very favorite authors. Runs in the family!
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis: This is another series that is just dying to be read out loud. Lewis’s writing style is so evocative and intimate. He draws you into the world of Narnia until you can’t help but believe in it and I swear nobody else has the same special relationship with it that I do (but they keep insisting they do, anyway). It’s still hard to walk by a wardrobe without opening it and peeking in… just in case… By the way, I recommend starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and reading them in order of publication.
The Tintin series by Hergé: I happened upon this series as a teenager, and quickly got all of my siblings hooked on the wild, thrilling escapades of Tintin, a young reporter, and his sleuthing dog Snowy. The comic book style is very quick and entertaining to read, and somehow Hergé manages to come up with a cliffhanger at the end of every page, as serial comic book artists do. My personal favorite adventures are The Black Island and The Secret of the Unicorn, but they can be read pretty much in any order.
All-of-a-Kind-Family series by Sydney Taylor: In case you haven’t noticed by now, I like series, especially for bedtime stories. Once you fall in love with a group of characters, you can’t help but want to see more of their lives and to watch them grow up and handle new situations and challenges. This charming, detailed saga does exactly that, describing the everyday realities, traditions, and adventures of five sisters growing up Jewish in New York in the early 20th century. You identify with all of the sisters in their different stages and with their different dilemmas, and even as the characters grow up, the books retain their cheerful, nostalgic feel.
Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books: First, a few words for the fairy tale. Fairy tales are my favorite bedtime story “genre” of choice, for a few reasons. First of all, there’s so many of them. You will never run out. Secondly, they are full of color, imagination, adventure, magic, and fantasy. Basically anything you can think of probably happened in some fairy tale or other. Third, every culture has them and there is no more fun way to learn about different cultures and times and places in the world than by reading their fairy tales. So if you’re ever in need of a quick escape from life and a reminder that reading is fun and exciting and magical and the best thing ever, go pick up a collection of fairy tales from the Storytelling Wing. Any fairy tales, really, though I have to give special recommendation to this well-known, well-loved, and seriously impressive collection by Andrew Lang.
The Complete Fairy Tales by George MacDonald: Remember that notion of fairy tales having a guaranteed true-love-conquers-all and happily ever after ending? Well, these stories are definitely more on the sad/disturbing/complicated side, but they are also beautiful and haunting and striking and have stayed with me for many years. As a child I found some of them difficult to understand or get a grasp of on the first go-round, but at the same time I was so intrigued by the characters, images, settings, and scenarios that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. They are certainly ones you will benefit from reading again as an adult, but children will still pick up on things to enjoy and learn from as well. I especially recommend The Wise Woman, or the Lost Princess and The Princess and Curdie.
Anything by Howard Pyle, but especially The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock, and The Story of King Arthur and His Knights: For tales of swashbuckling, chivalry, swordfights, knights, and pirates, it just doesn’t get better than Howard Pyle. I may not have been the only girl in my group of friends smitten with Robin Hood, but I was probably the only one to have a crush on Sir Gareth. These stories are so well written and really do wrap you up in the feel of a mythical, heroic past. There’s romance, tragedy, drama, adventure, fantasy – really, everything – and it’s just as captivating for adults as for teens as for kids (and for girls or boys). Because Pyle is secretly Merlin, or something.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Perhaps the book that I loved the very best as a child was a beat-up, dusty, red-covered, ancient-looking collection of Norse mythology. No pictures. Small print. I read it over and over until the pages were falling out and the cover was barely holding together. I have no memory of the author, only that it was volume 4 or so in a larger set of mythology books, some of which I enjoyed but none of which held my fascination and devotion in the same way that this one did. There was something about the competitive, proud personalities of the Norse gods, their close family structure and intricate web of relationships, and their particular strengths and weaknesses in dealing with different tests and trials that I found absolutely riveting. I’ve since tried reading collections of Norse mythology to bring back my nostalgia and love of this one, but none of them really captured the spirit of the characters or the stories from my memory. UNTIL. THIS. ONE. THANK YOU, NEIL GAIMAN. This book just came out this year and it does an amazing job retelling the stories with just the right amount of gravity, humor, and detail. Seriously, my only complaint is that I wish there were more of it.