In honor of All Hallow’s Read, I give you Neil Gaiman‘s answer to my favorite question.
The very first bedtime stories I remember being told were by my father, who used to tell us stories about a couple of squirrels—small grey squirrels who lived in the trees near us and had adventures and who would fight evil foxes. They were called Squibby and Squirky. And I remembering the worst part of that was when we moved. “But they lived in our tree, outside our old house. We’re hundreds of miles away. How can you tell stories about them?”
Neil also practiced the “reading by the hallway light,” trick at a very young age. This is a close cousin to the “flashlight under the blankets” trick, but the advantage of the hallway light is that you are not actually breaking the the “lights out” rule within the confines of your own bedroom. The disadvantage, of course, is that the hallway light tends to be dim. It leaves you squinting at your book. This may or may not lead to perfect night vision in adulthood.
I was a really early reader, which was kind of useful. I would be in bed with the door open just enough to read by, after I’m not meant to be up at all, with these strange English comics. I don’t even remember the title. Whatever these things they were, these English comics for three year olds, they were about woodland animals having adventures with jam. Lot of woodland animals in England, in stories, lots of little little happy hedgehogs making jam. By the end of it there was jam everywhere. Could’ve been blood, I suppose.
You can hear him deliver this answer here, towards the very end of a rather long video. The whole thing is worth watching, of course. Dave McKean is in it. (I’ll post about his answer another time.)
Catherynne M. Valente‘s mother, a Broadway singer, often used “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” as a lullaby. Cat called it the “Tina Song.”
Cat’s grandmother chose The Arabian Nights over showtunes when she offered bedtime entertainment. Someone once said of The Arabian Nights that “through reading these stories, my mind became habituated to the vast.”
It’s a good quote. Charles Dickens might have said it. Patrick Rothfuss tells us that the quote belongs to Dickens, but Wikiquote insists that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote it in a letter about giants and magicians and genii. The internet gives conflicting answers. It’s possible that a magician masquerading as Charles Dickens pretended to be Coleridge in order to forge that letter about giants and genii.
Regardless, reading Cat Valente will also habituate your mind to the vast.
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.”