Are you interested in writing quiet picture books for bedtime? Settle down with a pillow and a hot chocolate and read on…

Why write bedtime books?

Reading a story can create a wonderful bonding opportunity between a grown-up and a young child. This can particularly be the case with books read at bedtime. An evening storytime offers a special moment to snuggle up and settle down as part of a safe and secure routine.

Of course, any book can be read at bedtime, and that is a matter of choice (or debate!) for the reader and the child. However, for the purposes of this article, we’re looking at the special genre of bedtime books, those written especially with bedtime in mind.  These are the books that calm us down; the books that reassure us that all is well with the world. The books that remind us that now is the time to put away the playfulness of the day and prepare for a long and lovely sleep.

Because bedtime books can offer this uniquely, they are consistently sought by parents and therefore also sought by publishers. However, as they tend to have more of a niche reading slot, they don’t quite hold the same commercial marketing power as a book which can be read at any time (although, obviously, a bedtime book can still be read at lunchtime!). This means that bedtime books may be picked up a little less frequently by publishers, so competition is huge. To put yourself and your bedtime story in the strongest position, here are some thoughts.

So what makes a good bedtime book?

  • Slower pace

Although many picture books move at a relatively fast pace to engage and captivate a little listener, bedtime books usually embrace a calmer pace to prepare for sleep. However, at the same time, the story still needs to engage the child and hold his or her attention. If the story doesn’t do that, a tired child will just switch off and may start investigating the trampolining qualities of the bed.

  • Gentle language

In contrast to the livelier picture books, it’s best to minimise crazy language, or noisy onomatopoeic words. When you write picture books, every word needs to be perfect and earn its keep. Using beautiful, warm words, such as ‘snuggle’, ‘whisper’, or ‘tiptoe’ helps create a relaxing and soothing atmosphere.

  • Rhythmic text

As well as being very selective about the words you use, you could try creating a particularly rhythmic text. If it’s done well, the words themselves can almost rock the child to sleep.  The text could rhyme, such as Marni McGee’s almost hypnotic ‘Sleepy Me’ (Macmillan) or be written in prose, with gentle repetition, like the beautiful ‘Tell Me A Dragon’ by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln).  

  • Lower word-count

Bedtime books often have a lower word-count than their daytime counterparts. The child and the reader will be tired by this point in the day and often a shorter story is appreciated by both.  What you really don’t want is a story where the reader has to keep editing – skipping words, or even whole pages (not that a child will let them get away with that!) in a bid to reach the end sooner. It’s far better to keep the word count lower, perhaps nearer to 400 words, and just ensure that every word really works hard and has a purpose for being there.

  • Beautiful, feel-good stories

Bedtime books need to leave the child feeling safe, secure, and snugglesome – ready to lie down and go to sleep. Love-filled stories with touching, happy endings are perfect. The classic Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram (Walker) is a great example of this.

  • Soft, gentle illustrations

While the reader is telling the story, the child will be looking at the pictures. Soft, dream-like or pastel-based illustrations help enhance the quiet nature of the story and prepare for sleep. Keep these in mind as you write to help visualise and create the ideal bedtime book.

  • Night-time settings

Stories don’t need to be exclusively set at bedtime or night-time, but they often are. Think about the power of the front cover. A night-time image, with deep midnight blue sky and soft moonlight; or an adult character cuddling a little character under the stars; or a picture of a bed…all these images cry out ‘bedtime story’. So it makes sense that from a pitching and marketing point of view, bedtime books about bedtime or night-time are simply easier to sell.   

Alternatively, books could be set during daytime but end with a night-time scene, such as a story exploring a day spent with Grandma, ending with her tucking the child into bed. Again, Guess How Much I Love You does this very well.

  • Night-time topics

If you are using a night-time setting and night-time topics, it’s important to have an original approach. Many brilliant bedtime books are out there already – yours needs to stand out.

Probably the most common topic for bedtime books is ‘getting ready for sleep’. This could involve the character being unable to get to sleep for a wide variety of reasons. For example, in Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell (Walker), Little Bear is afraid of the darkness all around him. Fortunately, good old Big Bear has a solution to the problem.

Sometimes the books show the main character being unwilling to go to bed (such as Charlie and Lola: I Am Not Sleepy And I Will Not Go To Bed by Lauren Child, Orchard Books). This can certainly reflect the reality of life! However, be mindful of how the situation and the characters are portrayed. A deliberately naughty or disobedient child character may be cheered on by the child listener, but may not go down so well with the adult reader!

Anything Else?

Books about struggling to sleep are popular with parents and children alike but with so many existing books, new stories need to offer a fresh take on the subject. Perhaps instead of the typical bears and rabbits, you could try using an unusual character. Or maybe place the story in an unusual setting. Author Michelle Robinson and illustrator Nick East have created a brilliant bedtime series published by Puffin (Goodnight Princess, Goodnight Pirate, Goodnight Digger, Goodnight Tractor), which explores various favourite settings as the child character gets ready for sleep.   

The land of dreams is another great topic for a bedtime story, enabling the listener to explore a magical realm before drifting off to sleep. A good example is The Tickle Tree by Chae Strathie and Poly Bernatene (Albury Books). Told in rhyme, this story takes the reader on a whimsical and wonderful ride. If you’d like to write a dream-based story and indulge your imagination, remember to avoid making the adventure too loud and madcap. A good bedtime book should calm children down rather than have them galloping around the room, chasing a three-headed Wongleblob.

Bedtime toys can also feature in bedtime stories. In Goodnight Harry by Kim Lewis, it is one of the toys who cannot get to sleep. The relationship between bedtime toy and the child is another avenue worth exploring.

There will always be a need for bedtime books and a need for writers to create them. So why not give a bedtime story a go? Just try to stay awake while you’re writing!

Recommended Reading

Charlie and Lola: I Am Not Sleepy And I Will Not Go To Bed by Lauren Child (Orchard Books)

Sleepy Me by Marni McGee and Sam Williams (Macmillan)

Tell me A Dragon by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln)

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram (Walker)

The Goodnight Star by Amy Sparkes and Jane Massey (Red Fox/Random House)

The Tickle Tree by Chae Strathie and Poly Bernatene (Albury Books)

Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell (Walker)

Goodnight Harry by Kim Lewis (Walker)

Goodnight series by Michelle Robinson and Nick East (Puffin)