From Bedtime Stories

Of Festivals & Kelly Barnhill

Yesterday I read from both Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song as at a festival of children’s authors and illustrators. The reading was fun, the festival was marvelous, and the Anderson Center has a tower in it. 

Next month I’ll be reading at the Twin Cities Book Festival, which will have a Children’s Pavilion in it.

Kelly Barnhill, author of The Mostly True Story of Jack and the forthcoming-very-soon Iron Hearted Violet, read from both books at the very same festival. She’s as good with words spoken as she is with words in ink–which is very good–and after her reading I asked my favorite question.

Her very first bedtime stories came from the Checkerbook. It was actually a well-loved and badly worn copy of fairy tales that her father rebound with a checkerboard, but she didn’t find that out until later. For years it was the Checkerbook, and the stories inside it were Checkerbook stories.

What a grand and dangerous thing to do. I wonder what sort of games the tales played inside that book.


Fang & Talon

Jacob Gulliver, writer/director of Fang & Talon and my former student, says this:

My earliest memories of bedtime stories are Batman comics–cute, kiddified Batman comics, but still comics. One of my father’s close friends was an eccentric Italian mathematician named Lino who spent a lot of time at our house working with my Dad (also a mathematician). As my Mom says, he didn’t have any kids of his own to spoil, so he would read me Batman before I could do so myself. He did all the characters voices with a heavy Italian accent. Kevin Conroy does a better Batman, but Lino does the best Two-Face.

Jacob’s webseries needs patrons. Glimpse it here, and become a mini-Medici if you like what you see.

The Monster at the End of this Book

S. A. Rudek, founding member of the Unsettled Foundation and director of their live anthology, sent me this:

The first bedtime story I remember? Hmm. It’s a bit silly and not particularly mythic, but it’s probably the classic Sesame Street book called The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone, starring none other than that lovable blue dude Grover. The entire story is built around ever-mounting, meta-tastic suspense. There’s a monster at the end of the book, of course. And on each page, Grover tries to stop you in between frantic calls of warning. He directly addresses the reader and interacts with the book, trying his utmost to protect you from the monster. On one page, he’s attempting to secure the pages with rope, then he’s hammering planks into the pages. As you progress through the book, his work is destroyed and he’s left sitting in the rubble. His efforts mount with each page turn and eventually he’s building a brick wall in one final, desperate bid to stop you from turning the page. And then of course you do. And on the last page there is only Grover, and he comes to the realization that it was only himself. He was that was the monster at the end of the book. It terrified me as a pre-literate toddler — even after several re-reads. Because sure, maybe it was harmless old Grover the time before, and the time before that, and all times that I could remember. Because maybe this time it would be different, and the monster would be real and dangerous and unstoppable. And then poor Grover would just shake his head sadly — he did try to warn us, after all. It’s a pretty existential entry for a television tie-in picture book! And as I typed this up, I totally heard the voice of Werner Herzog in my head.

This one’s a part of my history. My mother used a splendid Grover-voice while reading it. Attention Werner Herzog: can you best my mother’s reading? I bet you can’t. I challenge you to try.

For those of you who enjoy glowing pages, this particular book has become an app.


The Bedtime Stories of WisCon 36

“What is the very first bedtime story you can remember?”

I often ask this question of my fellow authors. Last weekend at WisCon I asked it several times, and this is what people told me:

Christopher Barzak remembers many rabbits; listening to Peter Rabbit, requesting The Velveteen Rabbit, and then reading Watership Down on his own. If rabbits are his totem, then I suspect that the moon rabbits of Japanese folklore watch over him–or maybe the Aztec rabbit gods, who were known to be extremely fun at parties.

Ted Chiang suspects that Hop on Pop was among the very first books read to him. Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! must have also played a significant role. “Think and wonder, wonder and think!”

Eugene Fischer also remembers Dr. Seuss, along with The Hobbit and a Heinlein short story involving an antique plate. Neither of us could remember the name of that story, but I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in The Past Through Tomorrow.

Jen Volant has food-themed memories of bedtime books. We were at a restaurant when she brought up The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so the setting may have had a mnemonic effect. Then we all talked about the malleability of memory.

A.A. Milne made an impression on the early years of Ellen Klages–though she preferred his poetry to his prose, and still considers those verses science-fictional. After describing the otherworldliness of Milne’s poetry, she led a room full of people in a full chorus of “Disobedience.”


Her WisCon reading was a heartbreaking short story entitled “Goodnight Moons” (published here and here). Every beat in the story made all of us laugh, until we finally noticed ourselves quietly crying.

The earliest bedtime stories told to Delia Sherman involved the mischief made by escaped dolls. They were told to her in Japanese. She does not speak Japanese, and yet remembers the stories perfectly.

Sherman’s magnificent novel The Freedom Maze just won the Andre Norton Award, by the way.

Nancy Werlin was not read to as a child. She insists that her parents didn’t neglect her, but they were occupied with medical challenges posed by her older sister. Nancy taught herself to read by the time she was three.

Thus ends my WisCon 36 collection of bedtime stories.


Ursula K. Le Guin

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the very wisest voices in contemporary literature is Ursula K. Le Guin. Her fiction (and poetry, and essays) have shaped and reshaped my sense of story. She recently read my novel Goblin Secrets, and this is what she had to say about it:

It was hard to stop reading Goblin Secrets, and I didn’t want the book to end! The author’s imagination is both huge and original, taking us to a truly new place, rich with  lively, vivid scenes, fascinating people, and marvelous inventions. He doesn’t explain things, yet everything is clear. And he tells his fast-paced story in language that’s a pleasure in itself — subtle, tricky, funny, beautiful.  More, please, Will Alexander! 

-Ursula K. Le Guin

You know the happy dance that muppets do, with little muppet arms flailing? I’ll be doing that for the next several hours…


I don’t yet have a bedtime story memory from Le Guin, but on the topic of early influences she credits Lord Dunsany’s Dreamer’s Tales for showing her the way to her native country. Go find “A Citizen of Mondath” in The Language of the Night if you want to know more–and I know that you do.