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Deconstructing the classic children’s bedtime story

From ‘Peter Rabbit’ to ‘Where the Wild Things Are'.
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From 'Peter Rabbit' to 'Where the Wild Things Are', most of us have grown up with a range of classic children’s books on our bedside tables… But just what makes these stories so magical, memorable and valuable to little ones? Read on to find out…

Intro
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Before you get stuck into our infographic, you might be interested to look at the list of children’s books we analysed, which can be found at the bottom of this page! You’ll also find a list of Linda Blair’s favourite bedtime stories, complete with her commentary on why these, in particular, are so valuable for children.

Chapter 1
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Chapter 1: The Character

Looking at the stats, it’s hard not to notice the overwhelming presence of male pronouns throughout the majority of the books. As Linda highlights, though, this is a reflection of the fact that a lot of the books on the list are many decades old (some over a century!). While they are timeless in countless ways, they do show their age in this respect.

You only have to look at some of our modern-day children’s fiction to see that this imbalance is – or is well on its way to being – redressed. For example, our Dora the Explorers and Princess Pearls (the story of a princess who isn’t content with sitting in her castle!) are just the kind of brave, bold female protagonists that children can benefit from engaging with.

Chapter 2
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Chapter 2: The Story

When it comes to the storyline itself, it seems our little ones enjoy dipping their toes into the weird and the wonderful, from meeting velveteen rabbits to having tea with tigers, but there’s a catch. Writers cunningly use these storylines to slip in the everyday and the ordinary (like hiding carrots in mash), thus teaching easy-to-digest lessons about daily life. Through this technique, Linda tells us, they address real life challenges in an imaginative way, whether that’s to do with getting up in the morning, mealtimes or bedtime routines. They know a trick or two when it comes to life lessons, too, helping us teach our children about the likes of love, sharing, caring and brains over brawn. Finally, there’s often a touch of the scary in children’s books (in 25% of them in fact), which Linda tells us more about:

“There is an interesting continuum between amusing and scary: things that are just a little bit different from what we expect tend to make us laugh – they seem funny. However, things that are totally unexpected can feel frightening. Reading about these things helps children learn where this boundary is, aka where funny becomes frightening.”

Chapter 3
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Chapter 3: The Literary Techniques

We found that the overwhelming majority of classic children’s books use repetition, which Linda suggests is for a good reason, because “it teaches the child without it being a ‘trial,” meaning our little ones feel like they’re doing something they love, rather than feeling forced.

Next – we’ve heard of rhyme and reason, but is there reason in the rhyme? With 30% of traditional stories using rhyme, it seems this serves a more serious purpose than simply to ‘sound nice’. Linda tells us that this is because, “it’s easier to remember rhyming prose, so it actively encourages memory development.” Essentially, rhyming language activates more parts of the brain than plain vocabulary or grammar, and so it embeds more strongly. And what’s even better is that the ‘sounding nice’ part helps get your child to sleep, too.

Conclusion
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The books that made the list:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969)
  • Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney (1994)
  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (1960)
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)
  • Where's Spot by Eric Hill (1980)
  • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
  • The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (1922)
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr (1968)
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (1999)
  • Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell (1982)
  • Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (1992)
  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (1989)
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1901)
  • The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (1982)
  • Elmer the Patchwork Elephant by David McKee (1989)
  • Curious George by Margret Rey and H. A. Rey (1941)
  • Paddington Bear by Michael Bond (1958)
  • Llama, Llama, Red Pyjama by Anna Dewdney (2005)
  • Not Now Bernard by David McKee (1980)
  • There's a Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (1971)

Children’s book recommendations, as told by Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair:

After all of this, we wanted to know what Linda would recommend we read to our little ones before bed. Of course, some of these correlated with our classic children’s stories on the list, while others were a welcome surprise… but one thing never wavers: they all succeed in being a wonderful way to help children learn, bond and sleep. Here’s Linda’s top picks and why she thinks we should pick them up, too:

1. Dogger by Shirley Hughes

Linda says: This story sure knows how to invite children to join in with the characters, as they’re so accurately like children themselves! It’s all about the joy of sharing something you love to help someone else, which is one of the most important social skills a child can learn.

2. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss

Linda says: You couldn’t ask for a better one for rhyme and repetition. Green Eggs and Ham challenges children to love language and shows them that coming face to face with new things from carrots to classmates and everything in between can be great.

3. The Quango Wangle’s Hat by Edward Learn

Linda says: Another great one for rhyme with the well-placed addition of silly words, which we all know children love. Lear knows how to use both of these to best effect, encouraging children to express themselves with language.

4. The Sing Song Old Man Kangaroo by Rudyard Kipling

Linda says: An all rounder with fantastic use of rhyme, rich language, a lot of animals and adventures in far-flung places. This one embeds a real love of exploration!

5. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Linda says: A timeless story that also teaches children that all-important skill of how to share, as well as how good it can make you feel! This one is perfect if you’re looking for shiny, colourful pictures for your child to touch and interact with, too.

6. Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

Linda says: Here you will find a fantastic female character – and one that every child seems to adore! This is mainly because (just like them), she’s not perfect and this tale shows that this is completely okay.

Some final words of wisdom from Linda - embrace the notion of establishing traditions, like with this last one…

7. The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore

Linda says: A perfect pick for your little munchkin on Christmas Eve, this one will get them into bed on the night you’ll need it most. A story full of Christmas wonder that will spark their imaginations and dreams.

Whatever your schedule, always take a moment (or ten!) to snuggle up with your little one before they go to sleep. While children’s beds with a comfortable mattress and quality duvet will set the scene, the final part to a perfect night’s sleep is – you guessed it – the bedtime story, with the long-term impacts being well worth the time spent. For the full story, see our infographic here.

Thanks to Clinical psychologist and author Linda Blair for providing the expert insight needed to create this piece.

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