Neal Stephenson seemed especially surprised by this question. His forehead scrunched up as he tried to work his way back to his very first bedtime story.
“I remember D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths,” he said, “but that wouldn’t have been the first. Too many amputations, too many gods ‘marrying’ people. In D’Aulaire’s book Zeus is always ‘marrying’ mortal women…”
He promised to keep thinking about it.
Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age is partly about the formative powers of bedtime stories, by the way.
Holly Black remembers that her grandmother read chapters of Heidi at bedtime.
Incidentally, the little Swiss heroine is not blonde, despite contrary illustrations and unauthorized sequels. Spyri’s novel describes Heidi’s hair as black, like Holly’s own hair and name.
I met Scott Westerfeld this weekend. A fine fellow. I did, of course, ask him the question that I always ask, the one this blog is based on: What’s the very first bedtime story you can remember?
Scott claimed to have very few childhood memories. He did not reveal where he put them, or what he might have purchased with them. But he did remember Charlotte’s Web. He hasn’t bartered that particular memory away.
Charlotte’s Web–and the words woven into the web–made a significant impression on Scott’s young self. “The right word at the right time can save your life,” he said. “Those words might be ‘some pig,’ or they might be ‘Don’t step on that land mine,’ but they can save your life. Finding the right words is important.”
Diana Wynne Jones died earlier this year. We never met. But she did write an autobiography—long for an essay, and painfully short for the book it should have been. You can read the whole thing here, and you should. It includes a violent encounter with Beatrix Potter.
This passage is not really about bedtime stories, but it does involve both bedtime and stories:
Then my grandfather went into the pulpit. At home he was majestic enough: preaching. he was like the prophet Isaiah. He spread his arms and language rolled from him, sonorous, magnificent, and rhythmic. I had no idea then that he was a famous preacher, nor that people came from forty miles away to hear him because he had an almost bardic tendency to speak a kind of blank verse – hwyl, it is called, much valued in a preacher – but the splendour and the rigour of it nevertheless went into the core of my being. Though I never understood one word, I grasped the essence of a dour, exacting, and curiously magnificent religion. His voice shot me full of terrors. For years after that, I used to dream regularly that a piece of my bedroom wall slid aside revealing my grandfather declaiming in Welsh, and I knew he was declaiming about my sins. I still sometimes dream in Welsh, without understanding a word. And at the bottom of my mind there is always a flow of spoken language that is not English, rolling in majestic paragraphs and resounding with splendid polysyllables. I listen to it like music when I write.
Samuel R. Delany remembers Little Red Riding Hood. These are his own words.
The night in 1944 that my mother, pregnant with my sister, went into the hospital to have the baby, my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Myles came over to Harlem, woke me up out of my crib, and took me with them, in the car, my uncle driving, to stay with them for a few days in Brooklyn. My sister was born when I was two years and seven months old–and I have almost traumatically distinct memories of the whole evening, though nothing particularly unpleasant happened. In the car, while we drove through the November night, my aunt held me on her lap and told me the story of Little Red Riding Hood. (As I recall, I knew the tale even then.) Next she sang me the lullaby “Go, Tell Aunt Rosie,” to which, finally, I went to sleep, to wake up the next day, in their row house on MacDonnough Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, and talk to my mother in the hospital on the phone. All I said was “Hello,” and “I love you, Mommy,” while, in the dark mahogany second floor hallway, at the phone table, my aunt positioned me between her knees and held the phone to my ear.