Childhood Bedtime Stories: Books

Revisit these childhood bedtime stories for better dreaming

Coming back to the stories you loved as a kid can warm your soul faster than a bowl of mom’s special chicken soup. And when you reread your beloved childhood bedtime stories now, your adult brain finds new layers and deeper meanings you may have missed on the first go-around. ​​​​​

So grab your snuggly old teddy bear, wrap yourself in a well-worn blanket, and crack open your favorite childhood bedtime stories. Because every bedtime story is worth a nostalgic revisit—and here are five to get you started:

Childhood Bedtime Stories: The Giving Tree book

The Giving Tree

Written by Shel Silverstein

As a child: A boy befriends a tree and he grows as we watch. He uses the tree for climbing, eats its apples and finds solace in the shade. Slowly, they drift apart—but like any good friend, the tree is always there and gives everything it can—until all they need is each other’s company.  Frequent thoughts of the under-10 audience include: We get it, Mom, the message is someone will always be there for you…or something. Now, where are my crayons? Can I color this in?

As an adult: I dare you to read this to your child and not cry. OMG, that “someone” is now you. The tree gives everything to the boy, not because it can, but because it wants to—and it asks for nothing in return. Look at it as a metaphor for parenting, the environment, friendship…you’ll be right every way.

With more than 11 million copies are in print, The Giving Tree inarguably stands as one of the most popular children’s books of all time.

Childhood Bedtime Stories: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Written by Roald Dahl

As a child: You may have been more familiar with the movie than the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book, but the story is (roughly) the same. Four unruly kids and one winsome little boy named Charlie win admission to a fantastic candy factory. There’s a river of chocolate, blueberry pie in a pill, and funny little men with an interesting backstory who carry off the misbehaving children.  In the end, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and their entire face-to-feet-sleeping family inherit the confectionary fortune and blast through the roof in a flying elevator.

As an adult: For many, the late Gene Wilder— with his perfect comic timing, sincere expression and big eyes — will always be the titular character (with honorable mention to Johnny Depp). But when you read the childhood bedtime story now, you’ll find Willy was even more unusual and a little off-kilter than you remember. Dahl had thematic tendency to villainize adults in his books, and “Charlie” is no exception. And the tale of the Oompa Loompas may leave you wondering about labor laws.

While it’s still a fun story about bad people being punished and virtue rewarded, you may become more interested in the fascinating character of the candy man himself.

Childhood Bedtime Stories: Goldilocks and the Three Bears book

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

As a child: You probably thought the idea of dressed-up bears living in a cottage in the woods was funny. Likewise, you laughed at their dismay over the disruption caused by a little girl. Luckily, after a hearty meal and some much-needed rest, Goldie was able to outrun those silly bears and got away safe.

As an adult: That’s breaking and entering! No wonder those bears were angry. Plus, isn’t porridge just oatmeal? Chill. It’s also tempting to compare this childhood bedtime story to other tales in which a sweet young thing trespasses in a forest cottage. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, anyone?

This English tale was first written down in 1837 at which point it starred not a cute little girl but an ugly old woman — and the three bears weren’t a family, but bachelors.

Childhood Bedtime Stories: The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter

As a child: While the tale certainly makes even the youngest of kids wary of messing around in the neighbor’s garden or misbehaving in general, with delicate illustrations of bunnies and greenery, it’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy, like that tattered blanket you always carried around.

As an adult: Here’s another one about animals that act like a semi-functioning family. Sweet, right? But you’ll likely see a darker side now. You might, for example, think twice about stealing into Mr. McGregor’s garden if your dad met his demise there–and then got baked into a pie.

Call Peter brave, foolhardy or a rebel with a cause (carrots!), he defies Mom’s orders and goes foraging, only to end up in the quarry in a fantastic chase scene. If you’re a gardener, you just might sympathize with grumpy Mr. McGregor who, after all, is only protecting his hard-won harvest.

Childhood Bedtimes Stories: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Day book

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

As a child: Mama said there’d be days like this, and as usual, Mama was right. From gum in his hair at dawn, to lima beans for dinner, Alexander just can’t catch a break. You sympathized with the protagonist’s threat to chuck it all and move to Australia. The odds are stacked against him. We feel you, Alex.

As an adult: You might be tempted to say “Suck it up and get over yourself, kid. Time to put on those new, plain-white shoes and move on.” Life is what you make it.

What’s charming for all ages is the authentic kid voice, run-on sentences and all.

All great childhood bedtimes stories are worth a second look no matter when you first read them. Odds are, there’s more to them than you originally realized. Go ahead and open one up again—but here’s a word of warning for late-night readers: your stagecoach turns back into a pumpkin at midnight.

And if you see a bear in your window….just run.

Written by Martha Freeman

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