The best kids' stories for bedtime, travel-time, and fireside (even without the book)

Kate Lum Author Of What! Cried Granny: An Almost Bedtime Story
By Kate Lum

Who am I?

I’m a New Englander by birth, a Canadian by circumstance, and a Nova Scotian by choice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve told stories, first to my little sister—a captive audience—then to my children, then at my book readings, and now on my podcast, Kate and Friends, which I’m lucky enough to record with two professional musicians. For me, the ultimate test of a story is whether it can be told without visual aids. While I love picture books, and the way an artist can deepen a child’s experience of a story, I gravitate to satisfying, stand-alone tales with a good twist. They’re difficult to write, easy to remember, and great fun to tell! 

I wrote...

What! Cried Granny: An Almost Bedtime Story

By Kate Lum, Adrian Johnson (illustrator),

Book cover of What! Cried Granny: An Almost Bedtime Story

What is my book about?

Patrick is having his first sleep-over at his granny’s house. It's bedtime, but there's a problem: Patrick doesn't have a bed! Intrepid Granny runs to her yard, chops down a tree, grabs her tools, and makes him a comfy one. Now he can go to sleep. Right? But, wait, he doesn't have a pillow! Granny dashes to the henhouse…If Patrick is lucky, this could go on all night! 

With funky pictures by Adrian Johnson, this tale of love, resourcefulness, and grandmotherly frustration is perfect for storytellers, with several repeating lines kids love to contribute, and a comic, surprise ending.

The books I picked & why

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Something from Nothing

By Phoebe Gilman,

Book cover of Something from Nothing

Why this book?

A deft, charming re-telling of a Jewish folk tale, and winner of the Ruth Schwartz Award. In this gentle story, young Joseph grows up in a shtetl in a warm and loving home. His grandfather, a tailor, makes him a beautiful blanket at birth. As he grows, the blanket becomes worn, but Grandpa can always rejig the fabric into something new. At last, however, the sad day arrives when nothing is left of the blanket… until Joseph realizes that what’s left is a wonderful story. 

I nominate this book as a storyteller’s delight because of its comforting, cyclical nature, and surprise ending. While Gilman’s glowing pictures augment the story perfectly, with their warm, humorous depiction of family life, the story can easily be memorized, told, and enjoyed when no pictures are available.

Farmer Joe's Hot Day: A Scholastic Canada Reader

By Nancy Wilcox Richards, Werner Zimmerman,

Book cover of Farmer Joe's Hot Day: A Scholastic Canada Reader

Why this book?

As a kids’ storyteller, I’ve often used this book, and it bears telling even without its gently comic pictures. When Farmer Joe complains of his daily toil, his clever wife tricks him into becoming so uncomfortable that, once returned to normal conditions, he will never complain again! The story carries a message about positive attitude, without being didactic. Best of all, kids can chuckle along with Farmer Joe’s wife, understanding her trick while hapless Joe does not. Kids, in my experience, love to be smarter than at least one grownup in a story, and this book delivers that in spades! 

Peace at Last

By Jill Murphy,

Book cover of Peace at Last

Why this book?

This was one of my son’s top favourites, excellent for bedtime or any time you need a story. Easily memorized and told, even without the book available, it’s the story of poor Father Bear, who spends the night moving from room to room in search of a good night’s sleep. In each case, a repetitive noise keeps him up. “Oh no, I can’t stand THIS!” he cries, and children love the repetition as well as the funny noises that keep him awake. The ending is predictable but fun, and Father Bear somehow keeps his good humour, which makes this a helpful story about a kind of frustration all too familiar to parents: the lack of sleep! 

The King, the Mice and the Cheese

By Nancy Gurney, Eric Gurney (illustrator),

Book cover of The King, the Mice and the Cheese

Why this book?

An oldie but a goodie, this is the circular story of a king dealing with an infestation of cheery but messy mice. At the advice of his wise men, he brings in a mass of cats to chase the mice away. But the king is “most unhappy” when the mice take over his palace. What to do? The wise men recommend dogs! And so on and on, with one animal after another till the king is forced to learn how to live with the mice. My kids loved the sheer ridiculousness of the tale, the comic pictures, and the fun of knowing what would inevitably happen each time the king, with inexplicable optimism, brings in a new animal to deal with the last. A great story for telling, even when you don’t have the book, and fun for kids to illustrate themselves, as they listen. 

Spider School

By Francesca Simon, Peta Coplans (illustrator),

Book cover of Spider School

Why this book?

One of my daughter’s perennial favourites, I read this so often I had it memorized, and found it great to tell even without the hilarious pictures. In this story, Kate is facing her first day of school. So miserable is she at the very idea, she gets out on the wrong side of the bed. So of course, everything goes wrong! Her school is a dungeon, her teacher is a gorilla, and the dinner lady serves spiders, snails, and snakes for lunch. Brave Kate fights back, runs home, and saves her own day when she gets up all over again, on the right side of the bed. This is, underneath, a story about attitude, and reassures kids about the reality of school by comically exaggerating one child’s fears. But it’s also great fun to tell, with silly voices, unexpected developments, and a fine arc of tension till Kate decides to have a good morning, after all.

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