Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye
Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye

By leslie kendall dye.

My favorite time of day as a nanny was bedtime. Bedtime began somewhere around the end of dinner-time and before bath-time and set in fully as the sun descended and the pajamas were at last sorted and all the kids had the right sized Pull-Ups on. As the squabbling over ownership of toothbrushes and pillows and teddy bears commenced, my regular charges knew it would soon be time to run to my backpack and pull out the books. I never left my apartment without at least five books to read if I were going to be on duty at bedtime.

A few months before I became pregnant with my own child, my husband and I took a trip to Paris. On our way back to the United States, the Customs official at the airport rifled through my only purchases: children’s books. He asked me where my children were. I imagine he suspected I might be a bookseller. I am not. Quite the opposite, I am a book collector. And a book pusher.

I have many books saved from my own childhood--including The Chronicles of Narnia, in the original order—which shows how old I am. I also have books I have collected over the years, mostly from used book web sites – former library books all shiny in Mylar with stamps from the UK and other foreign lands, “as new” books purchased for a dollar and in“as new”  condition because their former owners either never read the books or loved the books so much that they took exquisite care with them, and paperbacks in lovely condition with the added charm of an inscription from a loving aunt dating back fifty years. I’ve also bought some books new, because when you nanny all day you are surrounded by these treasures and sometimes you can’t resist.

As I began to feel my own child kicking within me, I tended what was to become her library of books with extra care. I dusted them and I dreamed of the day we would read them together. And as the years have passed (she is now two-and-a-half) she has discovered and pulled down more and more of the treasures that have lain in wait for her long before she was conceived.

And now, after bath-time, when her curls are still wet and the baby lotion is still drying and we snuggle to read together, I often take a moment to remember my time with all those children who taught me how to slow down and snuggle a person to sleep with a good book. They taught me, also, which books withstand the test of time and the standards of a young child.

Here is my list of books to keep in your back pocket for bedtime!

When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six (aka The World of Christopher Robin.) by A.A. Milne

These two slim novels of poetry are everything childhood is about. They were written long ago, by a man who used his own son Christopher as a kind of model for his work and if you look up the real child you will see a stunning accuracy in Ernest Shepard’s accompanying idyllic illustrations. They cover a wide range of topics and the simpler poems are perfect for any child above the age of two or so. Even without the poetry, the illustrations will inspire much discussion and many questions, and at the same time soothe that little one to sleep. I ended up giving two well worn copies of the books to my last charge because she loved them so and I wanted her to have the ones we read together.

The Mog Books, by Judith Kerr

How I wish I had known about Judith Kerr in my nanny years! Kerr wrote many picture books about Mog, her family’s real life cat.  The first, entitled Mog, the Forgetful Cat, is actually one I might choose to skip due to its poignancy. But the sequels – particularly Mog and Bunny and Mog and the Baby are full of surprises and full of humanity. Children will recognize their own concerns and their own world view in these books and they will be expected to keep up. There is no grating baby-talk in these picture books and yet the words are simple and clear and if you are up for doing a British accent, you’ll have loads of fun reading the dialogue. Judith Kerr wrote other picture books as well. The Other Goose and The Tiger Who Came to Tea are my favorites and can be read a thousand times before a child turns her eyes in the direction of a different book.

Eloise in Paris, by Kay Thompson, pictures by Hillary Knight

Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye
Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye

I know the Eloise books are long. If you are taking care of a child who falls asleep with ease, there’s no need for Eloise. But I had some night owls, and oh boy, did Eloise come in handy when they needed to relax and hear my voice but I had nothing more to say. Eloise always has more to say. Any child past the age of three will love your attempt at a French accent and no doubt attempt one himself. Bonus points for attempting a Russian accent while reading Eloise in Moscow, my second favorite Eloise book. Don’t worry if they miss some of the subtler jokes, the words flow and the concept penetrates, not to mention that the illustrations are fascinating and inspire much curiosity. Kay Thompson’s and Hillary Knight’s Eloise books are diametrically opposed to A.A. Milne’s and Ernest Shepard’s gentle portrayal of childhood and yet now both books are “dated” and “classics.” What’s more, if you scratch beneath the surface, Christopher Robin and Eloise aren’t that different. They live in different eras and have different hobbies and values, but both are quintessential children. And nothing captivates children like books about real children.

All of a Kind Family (and its sequels.) by Sydney Taylor

I took care of two little girls who long ago lived on 75th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. The older one had trouble sleeping when she’d finished her homework and turned out her light. One night we read half of All of a Kind Family in one sitting. Brush off your Yiddish accent for these books and read to any child over six or seven about a family of young girls growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the century. The books are stern but gentle and call to you from another world. I’ve never seen a child grow restless while being read to from Sydney Taylor’s books. And she writes of topics we want children to learn about: hardship, love, the struggles of others, empathy, and overcoming calamities that seem quite large to children.

A Time to Keep, written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Tasha Tudor has said that if the words and illustrations that describe a year in a life on her farm are not entirely accurate, that if they eliminate the harsh aspects of life way-back-when, then she succeeded at her goal. It’s a beautiful book and endlessly entertaining to children starting around the age of about three. The illustrations tell their own stories as they wrap artfully around the text, which wraps itself around the events of each month of the year, as told by a grandmother to her granddaughter, who sits on her lap in the preface. It’s a quick read, but a nourishing one. And visions of sugarplums will most certainly dance in the heads of children who hear it just before sleep.

Water in the Park, by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Stephanie Graegin

This is a book that my daughter and I discovered together. It is a book for the here and now as well as a book that speaks to every generation since the invention of the playground. The illustrations are wonderfully diverse. We see a day in the life of a playground based on one the author frequented one hot summer in Brooklyn. We see two white dads caring for their adopted black toddlers. We see mothers and nannies of all nationalities and ages. We see dogs with varying levels of confidence and even an injured dog who has lost a leg and is learning how to swim again. We see old people feeding the fish in the pond. (My daughter gave them names.) We feel the heat of the park descend and affect everyone: children and adults, orthodox Jews on their lunch breaks, nannies who can’t pry their charges off the swings at lunchtime, adults picking up broken water balloon bits and soothing skinned knees and flowing tears with cool water and warm laps. If ever a book speaks to a nanny and a child both, this is the book. I have no doubt it will be considered a classic within a few years.

I’ve given my six (and sneaked in a few others.) I ran out of room for my favorite board books! That list might run a bit longer. More of those fit into a backpack, after all.

Don’t forget to bring a grown-up book for yourself if you get ten minutes after the kids go to sleep! Happy reading and good luck at bedtime!