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15 Classic Children's Books That Started as Bedtime Stories

Before these stories ended up on your kid's shelf, they were told to children tucked in bed.

1. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

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Before she tried her hand at children’s books, Betty MacDonald already had a non-fiction book under her belt: The Egg and I, a memoir about her life as the wife of a chicken farmer in Washington state. After its success, she decided to put pen to paper to record some of the bedtime stories she used to tell her two daughters. The result was the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series.

2. Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

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In 1930, Mathieu de Brunhoff told his mother he wasn’t feeling well. To help him feel better, Cecile de Brunhoff told little Mathieu and his brother a story about an orphaned elephant visiting Paris. Excited about the tale, the boys repeated it to their book illustrator father the next day, who thought the story had legs as a children’s book. Although it was slated to be published in 1931 with a byline for both Jean and Cecile, Cecile declined to take any credit, saying her role in creating the classic character was negligible.

3. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Christopher Robin isn’t just the fictional guardian of the famous honey-loving bear. The Winnie-the-Pooh series was unofficially created as a set of bedtime stories Christopher Robin Milne’s father based on some of his son’s toys—a chubby bear, a donkey, a tiger, a kangaroo, and a piglet.

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It was C.S. Lewis who originally encouraged Tolkien to adapt the fantastical bedtime stories he told his children into a real book. After The Hobbit was completed, the publisher asked for a sequel, which inspired Tolkien to spend more than a decade writing The Lord of the Rings.

5. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Riordan, already a successful author, created his Percy Jackson character when his son asked for some bedtime stories about Greek mythology. After he ran through all of the standard gods and heroes, Riordan invented Jackson. Because his son had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, the author gave these traits to his hero as well.

6. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming

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In 1962, James Bond author Ian Fleming was recovering from a heart attack. During this down time, he decided to write a short story about a flying car for his 10-year-old son, Caspar. Sadly, Fleming never saw the story turn into the huge hit it eventually became not only in bookstores, but also on stage and screen. The author died of a second heart attack two years later, on Caspar’s birthday. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car came out just two months later.

7. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Grahame began The Wind in the Willows as a bedtime story for his young son, Alastair, which he later continued over a series of letters while Alastair was away at boarding school. But this may not be as charming as it sounds—some historians suggest that Grahame hid behind the stories in order to avoid dealing with his son’s emotional issues. For example, after Alastair begged his parents to allow him to visit for his birthday, Kenneth wrote, “I wish we could have all been together, but we shall meet again soon and then we shall have treats. Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a low trick of his...”

While attending Oxford in 1920, Alastair committed suicide by lying down on nearby train tracks and letting an oncoming train decapitate him.

8. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

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Pippi Longstocking and her famous plaits were born when Astrid Lindgren’s daughter Karin was bedridden due to an illness. “Tell me a story about Pippi Longstocking,” Karin told her mother, pulling a funny name out of thin air. “Since the name was remarkable, it had to be a remarkable girl,” Lindgren later said. Her own bed rest due to a sprained ankle inspired Lindgren to put the story down on paper in 1944, and Pippi was published in 1945.

9. Thomas the Tank Engine by Wilbert Awdry

In 1917, Wilbert Awdry sat in bed, listening to steam engines “talking” to each other on the nearby Great Western Railway. Wilbert grew up, got married, and had a son. In 1943, when Christopher Awdry was stuck in bed with the measles, Wilbert remembered the trains from his childhood and created stories about talking trains named Edward, Gordon, and Henry. The stories got more and more detailed, later expanding to include a train named Thomas that young Christopher had gotten for Christmas. Thomas the Tank Engine was published the following year.

10. The BFG by Roald Dahl

Not only did Roald Dahl tell two of his daughters a bedtime story featuring his famous BFG, he also acted the part. After telling them stories of the big, friendly giant who blew happy dreams into bedroom windows, Dahl would climb a ladder outside of their bedroom and use a bamboo cane to “blow” dreams through the window himself. The girls were too old to believe that the giant from the stories was real, but neither of them wanted to tell their father that. “He seemed to me, even then, to have a vulnerable core. So I said nothing,” his daughter Ophelia once said.

11. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous series of stories, including “How the Whale Got His Throat” and “How the Camel Got His Hump,” originally began as bedtime stories to Kipling’s daughter. He called them the “Just-So Stories” because his daughter required the stories to be repeated using exactly the same words and rhythm every night—“just so.”

12. The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights by Ted Hughes

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Hughes said he “just wrote it out” as he told this series of bedtime stories to his children. It was later adapted into the animated movie The Iron Giant.

13. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Though not quite a bedtime story, exactly, Alice’s adventures began when Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boat ride up the Thames. To keep the girls entertained, he told a story about a girl named Alice who fell down a rabbit hole into a strange and magical place called Wonderland. The real Alice was enthralled with the tale and asked Dodgson to write it down. It was published three years later, in 1865, under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll.

14. Mother Goose in Prose/The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Thanks to the urging of his mother-in-law, Dorothy Gage, Baum jotted down some of the stories he told his kids at night. Among them was “The Little Bun Rabbit," later published in Mother Goose in Prose, in which a girl named Dorothy discovers she can talk to animals. In later collections, he changed her name to “Doris” to avoid confusion with Dorothy from Kansas. It’s said that many elements of Baum’s Oz stories also had their origins as bedtime stories.

15. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

In 1893, Beatrix Potter wrote a story for Noel Moore, the young son of her former governess. Moore was bedridden with an illness, and Potter thought the illustrations and accompanying story would help cheer him up.

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

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10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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