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May 8, 2018

Janelle Brown: Three Books at Bedtime

Janelle Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING, THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE and WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, the latter of which is now available in paperback. When her daughter was born, Janelle wanted to make sure that her little girl would grow up loving books just as much as she did. Thus the “three books at bedtime” rule was introduced and quickly became an important family tradition, which subsequently was passed on to her son. Read on to find out what books they’ve delved into together, why the rule eventually had to be tweaked, and how her now-eight-year-old daughter is faring on her bookish adventures.


Three books at bedtime. I’m not sure where I first picked this notion up --- probably it was something I read in a parenting book when I was still pregnant --- but when my first child was born, it became our gospel. My daughter was only days old, but I was already holding board books in front of her unfocused eyes and reading them aloud, three of them before every nap.

She napped every two hours. We read a lot of books.

The thinking behind this was twofold. Per the parenting blogs, reading was just one aspect of an important bedtime routine, one that would help our child adjust to a consistent schedule (and thereby guarantee parental sanity). Per me, however, it was about making sure that our baby grew up loving books as much as I did. I was that kid who read books by flashlight under the covers at night, who volunteered in the library for fun. I wanted great literature to be innate to my daughter too, as much a part of her existence as breathing.

Pat the Bunny eventually gave way to THE RUNAWAY BUNNY; The Pout-Pout Fish to Pete the Cat; Clifford The Big Red Dog to Froggy. (Animals featured heavily in our reading.) My husband and I had another child, a son, and now we had two sets of bedtime routines to go through. And of course, the kids liked different books, so we indulged them by reading to them separately, thereby doubling our nightly reading efforts.

“Don’t you think that’s overkill?” our friends would ask, and they weren’t so wrong.

The books were getting longer too: What used to take 10 minutes now took half an hour minimum. We eventually moved into Ivy & Bean and Ramona the Brave, still sticking to the rule-of-three, but chapters now.

Of course, the literature our kids chose wasn’t always great. (Don’t even get me started on the Rainbow Fairy series.) And no matter what they picked, we’d end up reading it over and over and over. Read a book too many times and it will drive you mad, no matter how good it is --- there are certain Curious George stories that give me PTSD even now. And yet the repetition also bred in me a new appreciation for truly great writing: The simple, emotional brevity of Knuffle Bunny. The subversive, warm-hearted charm of George and Martha. The ticklish silliness of THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES.

Were my children picking this up too? I liked to imagine that they were, subliminally --- that someday they would themselves produce superior prose thanks to all the hours they spent soaking in Judy Blume and Maurice Sendak. (I certainly hope it wasn’t the spelling in Captain Underpants that they’ve absorbed.)

At one point recently, I did the math and realized we’ve spent roughly 4,152 hours reading books to our children over the last 8.5 years. I’m not going to lie and say that I enjoyed every minute of that time. God knows there have been evenings when I wanted to just throw the kids towards their beds and walk away to read my own books. But it was also absolutely worth it.

My daughter is eight now and reading chapter books voraciously; her weekly library haul often maxes out my card. And while I often push the authors I loved as a child (Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett), her taste is absolutely her own (Raina Telgemeier, Charise Mericle Harper).

Our bedtime routine now is to snuggle up side-by-side, her with her book and me with mine, and read in happy silence together. We often stay up way past her bedtime, neither of us ready to close our books and turn off the light.

And in those moments, I know that my plan worked.