The age of Goodnight Moon is over. Long live Goodnight Moon. Twenty-first century kids deserve 21st-century bedtime stories. Here, then, are ten of the best.
Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin
Simple premise, lyrical prose, delightfully imaginative imagery: Dream Animals might have all the ingredients for a perfect bedtime story. Emily Winfield Martin lulls her readers to sleep with the promise that dreams will whisk them away to fantastical adventures — witness a girl riding a fox to an elven orchestra, a boy baking pastries with a bear, a pigtailed girl traveling by narwhal to the sea floor. “These creatures are the reason,” writes Martin, “Dreamers get where dreamers go. Dreamland is too far to run/And sleepy feet, too slow.”
The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson
A Caldecott Medalist in 2011, The House in the Night was deemed a modern classic almost as soon as it was released. The story itself is barebones: a girl is given a key to a house, where a bird emerges from a magical book and flies her through the night sky. The book’s magic lies in Beth Kromme’s scratchboard and watercolor illustrations — black and white, gold and grey — which evoke an intricate dreamscape, dense with surprising details: a violin lies on the bed, a globe sits on the dresser; flowers open their petals to the starlight as clouds hang in the distance. The House in the Night is one of those rare picture books that offers equal pleasures to parents and children.
A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na
Il Sung Na’s debut children’s book earned great acclaim for its textured illustrations, gentle coloring and soothingly spare narrative. The words, though pleasantly rhythmic, are almost unnecessary. The story is in its delicately-etched images, which follow an owl as he flies through the night and witnesses all his fellow animals sleeping. Giraffes, koalas, elephants, a whale, even penguins fall under his tired gaze until — spoiler alert — he, too, gets his turn to fall asleep just as the sun rises.
Little Owl's Night by Divya Srinivasan
A bit of an alternate take on A Book of Sleep, Divya Srinavasan’s story focuses not on sleeping animals but those who stay awake: a family of opossums waddling through the woods, a badger burgling fish from a sleeping bear, frogs and crickets singing in the moonlight. The illustrations are crisper and more cartoonish, with graceful prose that pops up to say only what the pictures cannot.
The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein
It’s the oldest story: boy wants to sleep, cat wants to hit the town. The cat wins out in author-illustrator (and Caldecott Medalist) Mordicai Gerstiein’s artful tribute to the nocturnal. With spare text and surreal imagery, Gerstein takes his boy and cat through a shadowy realm that gradually grows brighter and brighter, revealing dazzling color as dawn approaches. A great story for children wary of darkness — although you might want to remind your kids not to imitate the protagonists.
"The Troll Bridge" by Neil Gaiman
As he’s demonstrated in works like Neverwhere, Coraline and The Sandman, Neil Gaiman writes at a liminal space between wakefulness and slumber where anything seems possible — if not necessary. He builds rich worlds with a measured voice, giving his stories a wonderful dream logic: yes, odd things happen, but they seem perfectly consonant with the world they inhabit. “Troll Bridge,” from the collection Smoke and Mirrors, is Gaiman at his best. Half-fable, half-nightmare, the story follows a boy-turned-man across three encounters with his local bridge-dwelling troll. It’s a simple yarn with surprising — and resonant — consequences.
The Goodnight Train by June Sobel
Sooner or later your kid’s gonna find out about trains and become deeply obsessed. There’s no avoiding it. You can either adapt, or find a new kid who will eventually also find out about trains. For parents who choose option A, this colorful book adds a locomotive twist to the classic “Sleepy Kid Goes on a Journey Through Fantastical Settings” approach to bedtime stories. It’s got rhymes, bright colors, onomatopoeia and some of bedtime literature’s finest puns. Don’t worry — the train thing’s just a phase. Probably.
"The Thing in the Forest" by A.S. Byatt
Wait until your kids are a bit on the older side — and maybe perched by a campfire — for this one. From Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories, “The Thing in the Forest” opens like any other fairy tale, with two young girls wandering through a magical wood in wartime England. They stumble across a terrifying wormlike monster; it doesn’t notice or harm the girls, but its memory haunts them into adulthood. Byatt writes with chilling precision — “It had blind, opaque white eyes, fringed with fleshly lashes and brows like the feelers of sea anemones” — and great empathy for her characters’ struggle to shed the past.
The Dark by Lemony Snicket
Like many children his age, Laszlo is afraid of the dark. He sleeps with a night light and each morning ventures to the basement steps to safely greet his fear: "Hi, dark." Lemony Snicket's jaunty, poetic language — ripe with repetition and alliteration — is perfectly suited for the picture book genre. Docile with just a tinge of danger, it pairs deliciously with Jon Klassen's muted watercolor illustrations. The pages, like the corridors of Laszlo's house, are so spacious that the text seems to echo from every corner.
The Full Moon at the Napping House by Audrey Wood
A companion to the authors’ widely acclaimed The Napping House , The Full Moon takes a slightly different approach to its subject matter. Whereas the original story is populated by somnambulant characters suddenly awoken, now they can’t fall asleep at all. Inspired by a bout of moon-induced insomnia, author Audrey Wood set out to capture her restlessness for generations to come. Her singsong prose descends effortlessly across Don Wood’s artwork: tapestries of deep blue and purple laden with satisfying detail. This is a book best read beside the moonlight it laments.