3 Bedtime Picture Books That Won't Put Parents To Sleep

Mar 30, 2014
Originally published on March 31, 2014 3:55 pm

At the end of a long day, there's a phrase that parents of small children can come to dread hearing: "Read me a story!"

Though bedtime reading can be fun, reading the same book over and over and over again can be excruciating for parents.

Margaret Willison, a librarian who specializes in young readers, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers she recommends three picture books in particular that appeal to children without boring the pants off their parents.

Of course, you don't have to eschew words altogether to make repetitive reading more fun.

Willison suggests replacing words in familiar books with a similar rhyming alternative — for example, "goodnight spoon" in place of "goodnight moon" — to catch your child off guard. She explains that engaging and sharing a joke with your child makes reading more enjoyable for everyone.

"Don't be afraid to sort of break into the story and interact with your child while you're doing it," she says.

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Welcome to The Kids Table. Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we've created a place to sit and talk about, well, kids and everything to do with being a parent. I have a little girl, and I like to read to her. She does have her favorites that we have to read over and over.

It's something I hear a lot from parents. How can I choose books for my kid that won't bore me to death? So we put that question to Margaret Willison, a librarian who specializes in young readers.

MARGARET WILLISON: I think the trick is to figure out what you, as an adult, gravitate towards in picture books, books that can sort of be appreciated on different levels by a parent and a child. So one example is "I Want My Hat Back" by Jon Klassen, which is a bear interrogating a series of woodland animals attempting to locate his hat.

And I think your toddler appreciates it on a level of dramatic irony where they get to see the hat before the bear realizes he has, so they get to feel like they're one up on the bear, whereas a parent can sort of appreciate the real difference in tone and the quieter artwork and the sort of sparse narrative.

MCEVERS: I'm looking at it right - some of the pages right now and they all have these really kind of ridiculous expressions on their faces, like, big wide-eyed like, I don't have the hat.

WILLISON: They do.


WILLISON: Very, very visually funny, again in an unexpected, sort of, understated way. And another quality to look for in books you're going to read over and over and over again is for it to be really rich with detail so that there are new things to notice each time through the book, both for you and for your toddler. And I think the king of that is Kevin Henkes who's written a series of picture books about sort of toddler pre-school mice.

My personal favorite is "Chester's Way," and it's about two arrestingly finicky little boys who are best friends and how they respond to a wild new girl moving into their neighborhood and trying to spend time with them. And he just puts these really priceless asides into the illustrations where, you know, if a character is anxious there'll be another character in every frame who's wearing a different T-shirt that says something like, chill out, bro or hang in and relax in here. And it'll vary from page to page.

And as an adult, you can appreciate the artistry with which he's laid out the page, and your kid can appreciate the variety of expressions that he's managing to communicate in a very brief amount of time.

MCEVERS: What about books with no words?

WILLISON: That is another excellent choice. My current favorite wordless picture book is "Mr. Wuffles!" by David Wiesner about a cat who's very bored with all of his toys until he encounters one that looks to human eyes like a toy but you see in the picture book it's actually a tiny spaceship full of aliens that he ends up terrorizing. And it's this priceless mix of very mundane and familiar details, like, he just nails the cat's behavior. And this really whimsical, fantastical element, they just mesh together so well.

MCEVERS: You say it's good for kids to develop their own native storytelling abilities, but I know my child who'd say, tell me the story, tell me the story. And on the one hand that would be fun, but on the other hand, at the end of a long day, it's annoying.

WILLISON: Well, you can always just encourage your child to spend a little time with it by themselves. But always throughout your reading, you want to be making an active, not just a passive role for them. So even if you're reading a picture book with words, you can ask the child what they think is going to happen next. And I think they would enjoy being able to show off.

What one of my friends does with her toddler is when they're going through a book they've read a number of times before, she'll just switch words that rhyme. So instead of saying goodnight moon, she'll say goodnight spoon, and she'll see if he catches her. And then they get to have a joke about that. Don't be afraid to sort of break into the story and interact with your child while you're doing it.

MCEVERS: You know, I sometimes find myself telling my daughter why I don't want to read that "Berenstain Bears" book again. You know, like, why I don't like it. Am I enriching her by, you know, cultivating critical thinking, or am I just basically being a jerk?


WILLISON: That parenting question is a difficult one for me to answer. I feel like you have to be enriching her a little bit. But at a certain point, you also have to accept that whether it's sugary cereal or dreadful picture books, outside cultural influences are going to get into your child's life. And how you two process those outside cultural influences together is basically one of your main tasks of being a parent.

MCEVERS: Well, Margaret Willison is a librarian who specializes in young readers and a regular contributor to NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Margaret, thank you so much.

WILLISON: It's my pleasure.


MCEVERS: Our parenting series is called The Kids Table. If you have a parenting topic to suggest, you can email us at kidstable, all one word, no apostrophe, @npr.org.

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