Slumber Parties: New Picture Books for Bedtime

Books for the very young are expected to work as both art and sleep aid. Thus bedtime remains one of children’s literature’s great and p...

Books for the very young are expected to work as both art and sleep aid. Thus bedtime remains one of children’s literature’s great and perennial subjects. Still, it’s not every publishing cycle that coughs up four new picture books that, while officially unrelated, can be lumped together to form an inadvertent night-night tetralogy.

I am a sucker for fall. I am also a sucker for dusk. So I am a double sucker for WOODLAND DREAMS (Chronicle, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 5), which takes place on a very late afternoon in very late autumn. (Eyelids getting heavy yet?) As evening draws nigh, an unnamed little girl and her big black dog amble through a cozy-looking forest where they spy sundry creatures heading off to their respective dens, nests, burrows and hollows. A gorgeous ode to curling up for the night, this is the second book from the author Karen Jameson, a rising bedtime specialist who previously wrote “Moon Babies” and whose next book will be titled “Farm Lullaby.” Here, each critter is given a sweet nickname and called to bed with a doubled couplet. A fawn, for example:

Come home, Tiny Hooves.
Wide-eyed runner
Spotted sunner
Evening’s sounding. Scurry! Rush.
Safely nap in wooded brush.

Can verse be toothsome? I love Jameson’s savory consonants and peppered exhortations, which beg to be read aloud. Her story, such as it is, ends with a light, dusting snowfall and the heroine tucked into her own warm bed. Fans of the illustrator Marc Boutavant who know him from the Dumpster Dog series (written by Colas Gutman) will find him working here in a gentler, less antic mode: His sunset-to-twilight palette is rich with oranges, ochres, browns, forest greens and deepening blue-grays; his compositions suggest girl, dog and fauna are all part of a larger, interwoven whole. Just lovely — and the final spread, depicting the girl’s drawings of the animals she’s seen, is a perfect grace note.

TIME FOR BED’S STORY (Kids Can Press, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 7) is a stroke of conceptual genius. I bet everyone who writes for children wishes they’d thought of it. I know I do. It has the snappy, subversive logic of a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine: Kids are always complaining about going to bed, like going to bed is the worst thing ever, but no one ever stops to think how that makes the beds feel. The writer-illustrator Monica Arnaldo’s narrator is a messy, anthropomorphized bed with a grumpy face on its beat-up, bestickered headboard. Bed speaks of itself in the third person as if it were the Incredible Hulk: “Bed knows you do not like bedtime. … And Bed gets it. But look. … YOU are not so great, either. First the kicking. Did you know you kick in your sleep? Because you do, and it is a lot.” Bed harbors a long litany of complaints: bouncing, strange teeth stuck under pillows, bad breath, drooling, all those dinosaur and rainbow stickers. Readers will feel for Bed.

Alas, Bed’s pleas for better behavior, for maybe just a little consideration for once, go unheeded by “you,” who, in Arnaldo’s cartoony yet winsome illustrations, looks to be a self-absorbed 5- or 6-year-old. Nevertheless, a détente of sorts is achieved: Bed does not just lie down and sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice like that famous masochist, the Giving Tree.

“The grass was too prickly, and the earth was too hard. The trees were too noisy, but the desert was too quiet.” No wonder the exhausted hero of ARLO THE LION WHO COULDN’T SLEEP (Peach Tree Press, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 2 to 6) remains stubbornly wide awake. He is rendered by the writer-illustrator Catherine Rayner in a liquid, blobby, swirly style, barely held together by strong black outlines, which to my eye underscores just how desperate he is to slip the bonds of consciousness.

Unlike you or me in these circumstances, Arlo is saved from a wee hours’ scroll through his Twitter feed by a passing owl, who sings this instructional lullaby:

“Think about the places where you’d like to be,
the things that you’d do there and what you might see.”

Arlo pictures himself “bounding up mountains, wading in rivers and climbing enormous trees.” Then he imagines “he might need a rest. … And before he knew it …” Zzzzzzzz. Rayner matches this with a pretty wash of a painting that shows the lion bleeding into a landscape that itself seems to be bleeding into air — an illustration that looks the way the drift and untethering of falling asleep feels. The next morning, Arlo wakes “happy, fresh and full of energy.” Enviable! There’s a bit more story, not particularly gripping; then again, if it were, it might defeat its purpose.

Ever wonder what happens after “Goodnight noises everywhere,” after the little bunny in striped pajamas dozes off and the quiet old lady whispering hush tiptoes down the hall and turns on “Grey’s Anatomy”? What kind of dreams are being conjured in the red-orange bed in the great green room? IN THE HALF ROOM (Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99; ages 4 to 8) isn’t a sequel to “Goodnight Moon,” and it’s not about dreams, per se, but it’s suffused with a playful dream logic that likely would have tickled Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, not to mention Lewis Carroll and René Magritte.

The writer-illustrator Carson Ellis won a 2017 Caldecott Honor for her story told in gibberish, “Du Iz Tak?” — and this new one shares its predecessor’s trust in children’s willingness to be simultaneously puzzled and delighted, to let a story come to them. Like “Goodnight Moon,” “In the Half Room” is more an incantation than a story, as well as, in part, a catalog of what’s in a room. But in this room, there are only halves:

Half chair
Half hat
Two shoes, each half
Half table
Half cat

Sitting on the half chair is half a red-haired girl, reading half of “A Tale of Two Cities.” A half visitor, announced by half a knock at half a door, proves to be her literal other half. Made unexpectedly whole, she runs outside to dance in the light of a half moon in a textless illustration that exudes joy — a dream within a dream. Does it “mean” anything? Who cares: That’s a question for morning.

Bruce Handy is the author of “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.”

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Newsrust: Slumber Parties: New Picture Books for Bedtime
Slumber Parties: New Picture Books for Bedtime
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