Bedtime Stories: Mother Goose Meets Lassie

Go here if you need tips on how to tell good bedtime stories. Keep reading if you want tips on how not to tell good bedtime stories.

Ann’s scathing exposé of seemingly innocent Mother Goose tales has me thinking about the years that I served as the chief bedtime book reader and story teller for our kids and grandkids. Our nightly routine would begin with my reading something from one of the pile of children’s books next to the bed, often involving Mother Goose type tales.

In this old German illustration, Red Riding Hood has poured a glass of beer for her Grandmother after they were “liberated” from the wolf’s stomach.

At the time I didn’t really think about the gruesome narrative of many of the tales I read to them, even dutifully showing them the graphic illustrations. Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother gets eaten by a wolf (and so does Red Riding Hood in some versions). A “happy ending” for this story is when a passing woodsman uses his ax to gut the wolf and free grandma and Red Riding Hood from its belly. Yuck!

Or there is Jack who climbs a bean stalk to be subjected to a bloodthirsty giant’s wrath. I can still quote the following excerpt verbatim, which naturally I would read in a booming giant’s voice:

Fee-fi-fo-fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread

Sweet dreams kids!

From “The lively history of Jack & the beanstalk,” 1846. Artist: Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill.

After we had finished reading from a book I would turn off the lights and announce, “I’ll tell you a story if you promise to go right to sleep after I’m done.” It was my recurring bargaining chip to get them settled in for the night as well as an opportunity to shift gears and move from the macabre world of Mother Goose to a kinder world of my imagination.

The stories I told usually involved the adventures of a dog and his or her human companion – there were never any bones ground for bread or grandmas gobbled up by big bad wolves. This excerpt about Lassie from the NY Times could apply to any of the canine protagonists in my stories:

And they don’t come much better than Lassie, a dog who’ll take a bullet for you, save you from an avalanche or rescue you from a forest fire. No matter how many traumas Lassie suffers, no matter how bedraggled her demeanor and matted her coat, she always returns to those she loves, always comes home.

It should be no surprise that dogs were a central theme in my storytelling. I grew up in an era when dogs were serious movie stars and popular public figures. During my 4th Grade year I was obsessed with dog stories and even though I eventually “outgrew” this obsession, these stories have remained a part of what I consider to be my childhood past.

These were just some of the books I would covertly read with a flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep (too bad Kindles weren’t around then!).

In the stories I spun for our kids and grandkids I can’t tell you how many times Lassie dashed home to get adult help after Timmy had fallen into a ravine, or recount the number of bad guys that Yukon King disarmed seconds before they could get the draw on Sgt. Preston, or how many wolves Buck (from Call of the Wild) fought off to protect his human companion, John Thornton.

However, now that I am no longer on call for bedtime story-telling duty, I’m having second thoughts about whether or not my emphasis on heroic dogs and consistently happy outcomes was the way to go. At least the violence and character flaws in the Mother Goose tales provided some sort of moral lesson or had historical relevance. Does hearing (over and over) about the valiant feats of dogs bailing out their human companions prepare youngsters for the rigors of the real, and often cruel, world they will be facing?

Maybe I should have incorporated some Mother Goose type cynicism and realism into my Polyannaish dog stories. When Sgt. Preston desperately needed help, Yukon King could have been awol down the road flirting with some hussy husky from another dog sled team. Or, Buck could have run off with the wolf pack after they had done in poor John Thornton.

I must admit that despite their exposure to my feel-good bedtime stories, it appears that our children (and grandchildren) have matured into well-adjusted and delightful human beings. I wonder if they will look back on my stories and worry about my inability to cope with our increasingly harsh world. Come to think of it, I worry about that myself.

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