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READING IN CHALLENGING TIMES

 

In hard times, we open a book and we’re never quite alone. Keeping us company are those who’ve read the story before—sometimes even our past selves.

 

When my partner was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, I turned to my sons’ bookshelves, looking for a way to talk to them about life and death. C. S. Lewis believed, ‘A children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say’. Direct and simple, these tales are stripped to their essential elements. One of those elements very often is magic. Fairy tales present us with an alternate reality that feels familiar. A cast of animals may talk, but they are in a regular-looking classroom, or riding the bus, or being told by their parents to go to bed. As children turn the pages, they’re in a world adjacent to their own, with the possibility that some enchantment will slip from the book into their own lives. For the adult reading to a child, the magic can be time travel.

 

I wanted a book to hold us, as in hold us in place, hold us together. I felt a version of this embrace when I read my sons the picture books my grandfather had once read to me. The saturated colour of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar took me into the domestic palette of the 1970s. I could have been back on my grandparents’ couch patterned with bright orange autumn leaves, ricocheting to a time when everyone I loved was still alive, and I hadn’t known loss… though many of the books themselves had been created in response to grief. Carle conceived of his luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the deprivations of a bleak, war-torn childhood. C.S. Lewis’s mother died of cancer when he was nine-years-old and her love became, 'the great continent…sunk like Atlantis.'

 

Now that I was reading these authors’ classics to my sons, I thought of my much loved grandfather, who read in a gruff monotone. I wondered if anyone ever read to him? His father died on a French battlefield when he was a baby, but, in reading to me sixty-odd years later, he was passing on the message that, even in the worst of times, a path will emerge through the woods, and it is possible to weave straw into something golden—messages I wanted my children to hear.

 

We read to be taken somewhere else. A book is a form of escape we may experience physiologically—psychologists write about the phenomenon of grounded cognition, where, for instance, a person reading about sailing has a physiological sense of being at sea. Cast into another realm, we safely practice hard emotions. Each book becomes a kind of simulation. We follow various protagonists, we learn about wise and unwise decisions, we begin to understand other people’s lives.

 

During our household’s experience of serious illness, we got lost and found in stories—and I came to know it was not only to soothe me that my grandfather had read me those books. Adults tell children stories in part to console themselves.

Bedtime Story

From the best-selling author of The Tall Man and The Arsonist, a personal tale about death, life and the enchantment of stories. With illustrations by Anna Walker.

Let me tell you a story…

When Chloe Hooper’s partner is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness, she has to find a way to tell their two young sons. By instinct, she turns to the bookshelf. Can the news be broken as a bedtime tale? Is there a perfect book to prepare children for loss?

Hooper embarks on a quest to find what practical lessons children’s literature—with its innocent orphans and evil adults, magic, monsters and anthropomorphic animals—can teach about grief and resilience in real life. From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett and Tolkien and Dahl—all of whom suffered childhood bereavements—she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favourite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives.

Both memoir and manual, Bedtime Story is stunningly illustrated by the New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of worldwide uncertainty, here is a profound and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.

'Everything you’d ever want in a bedtime story – heroes and heroines, puzzles and dangers, invisible forces, birds, trees, beasts, poetry, sadness and joy. Stories within stories. I was spellbound from the start. As for the ending... I can’t tell you that.' Paul Kelly OA

‘Chloe Hooper has a formidable talent to take complex stories and ideas and truths, and to distil them into a language of direct and powerful beauty. This is a story of grief and of patience, of hope and acceptance. It is also a reminder of the solace that books give us, and of how the imaginary worlds we dive into as children remain with is for all our lives, of how they guide us into adulthood and maturity. There is a quiet courage and strength in this book. It is both gentle and uncompromising, a love letter to family and to literature that is bracingly unsentimental. I was profoundly moved, and profoundly grateful.’ Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Damascus

‘This book is a miracle of light and meaning-making from one of our finest writers. Venturing inward with extraordinary grace, Hooper explores – and extends – the long literary line surging with our deepest inherited wisdom about how to embrace our finite lives. The result is nothing less than the hero's journey we have been collectively starving for. Telling you this is like trying to describe the sun; it is a book so powerful and beautiful – so utterly its own – that it can only be experienced directly.’ Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer

‘Exquisitely beautiful. This book is an act of love.’ Anna Funder, author of All That I Am and Stasiland 

'Deeply engrossing and honest, human, full of love and tenderness, with moments of sparkling humour in the struggle. I loved everything about Bedtime Story. I loved particularly what it taught me about authors who write for children, the ways that writing and reading provides compensation, balancing the scales between loss and love.’ Sofie Laguna, author of The Eye of the Sheep and Too Loud Lily