Should parents read bedtime stories?

This is the first instalment of a 3-part series on the importance of reading to children.

“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” – Neil Gaiman

If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a meeting with me towards the end of the day, you’ll no doubt clock me clock-watching. As daylight disintegrates to dusk outside my office window, you may detect in me a growing unease, impatience perhaps, and – to your delight – a tendency towards shorter speeches, even monosyllables. Why? Because I’m calculating how long I’ve got till the “story” train leaves town, so called because it’s the last train of the day guaranteed to get me home before my daughter’s bedtime story.

I used to work with someone who cunningly timed his daily departure so that he missed his children’s bedtime. He wasn’t a bad person. He just worked hard and wished to return home to quietude, a house free of children’s screams, safe from the stresses and strains of bath-time.

But not me.

I don’t profess to be perfect. Sometimes I wish I could throw down my briefcase and tramp up to bed without hindrance or impediment. Sometimes I lose my patience if my kids refuse to go gently into their goodnight. I holler up the stairs to silence a gaggle of giggling girls. I issue threats to temper tantrum-prone teenagers from tearing each other to tatters. And if my eldest daughter – in a perfect facsimile of Kevin the Teenager – huffs ‘It’s soooo unfair’ at me one more time when I tell her to go to sleep, I will not be held responsible for my actions.

So no, I’m not perfect. But despite this, I try to board the train that I know will get me home in time for my daughter’s bedtime because I wouldn’t, for all the world, miss reading her a bedtime story. I do miss it, often, but not without a sagging sense of disappointment. On the days I work late, I watch the train depart the station (I can see the mocking platform from my office window) and, with it, I watch the pleasures of reading a bedtime story depart too in a cloud of electric smoke.

And why is the bedtime story so important to me, you ask… well…

Reading my daughter’s bedtime story is an innocent act that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, it is my sore labour’s bath, the balm of my hurt mind, and the chief nourisher in my life’s feast. Our bedtime story makes the world seem a better place, it is an oasis of calm and order in an otherwise cold, cruel world. After a stressful day of work, it reminds me what life is really about, and how precious is our time on earth.

Jackie Onassis once said that “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” Alan Bennet said, “A book is a device to ignite the imagination”.

A book at bedtime is not just a literacy lesson – or indeed a literary one – it’s a way of learning about the world around us, as well as a way of discovering new worlds and, with them, new hopes and dreams, and endless new possibilities. To climb inside the pages of a good book is to take a journey to paradise which – rather aptly – Jorge Luis Borges once described as being like “a kind of library.”

Reading allows us to live a thousand different lives in a thousand different times, rather than just the one we’re given. As Dr Seuss said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book.” – Marcel Proust

On the lucky days I make it home before bedtime, my youngest daughter and I climb the stairs (cue the Ministry of Funny Walks), clean her teeth, then go into her room and pull back the duvet. First we climb into her bed then we climb into her book.

In the moment immediately before we descend, we stand perched on the edge of the book, excited, eager to fall headlong into the pages, to tumble down and disappear from the world for quarter of an hour, and enter a timeless land of limitless opportunities. As John Berger put it, “When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls.”

My daughter and I escape for fifteen precious minutes, leaving our house hand-in-hand to find a new home among the pages.

I remember books from my own childhood and these memories are more than vague recollections of plot and character. Memories of books take me back, sensorily, to a particular time and place. They evoke strong reminiscences of wonderment and discovery. Aged seven, for example, I lost a rainy Saturday to Enid Blyton. (I can still feel the thrill of it now.) I left a wet and grey northern town to inhabit a sun-streaked world of haunted castles, of exciting adventures and derring-do, of school children using all their ingenuity and bravado to combat dastardly villains before returning home for lashings of ginger beer. After Blyton came Roald Dahl who gave me the keys to a magical factory wherein rivers flowed with chocolate, then took me into space in a great glass elevator to meet a cast of weird and wonderful creatures.

Books held a special place for me because they were my escape and my education.

Books were my escape because, despite my humble circumstances, they afforded me infinite opportunities. I didn’t need money or privilege to see the world or indeed explore the wider universe; books were my means of transport.

Books could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

I was born in a poor northern town in the shadow of dark satanic mills and disappointment. My family lived in a row of terraced houses which snaked up a Yorkshire hillside like needles on a hedgehog’s back. And life was just as spiky. My childhood – though happy – was one of hand-me-downs and making-do. But books enabled me to slip the chains of poverty, to cut the shackles of my birth and make good. As Frederick Douglas said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Books were my education because my love of reading fed my love of learning. I was schooled at a time when grammar wasn’t explicitly taught and so learnt to spell, punctuate and understand grammar almost by osmosis, solely through reading well-written books. My primary school was dreadful – a sink school which exuded a soft bigotry of low expectations – and my fourth- and fifth-form English teacher was ineffectual (much to the anger of my A Level teacher who – later, having untapped my true potential – exchanged several choice words with her). Throughout my childhood, therefore, books were the best teachers I had.

Books were, in the words of Kofi Anan, a “bridge from misery to hope [and] a bulwark against poverty”. Anan went on to say that, “For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential.”

Yes, books were my escape and my education, and reading my children a bedtime story when I get home from work is the best means I have of passing it on; it is the best inheritance I can bequeath them. Well, that and the house.

I’ll let the last word go to the children’s author, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who is passionate about preserving the bedtime story.  In a recent newspaper interview he said: “Bedtime stories give reading an emotional depth. Why would you ever stop? This is something people have done since the days of sitting around campfires napping flints. To stop doing it now is to break the great chain of our being.”


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