Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2022

Bedtime Story, by Chloe Hooper

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue or Griefline.


Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime Story is not the kind of book one might ‘review’ in the usual sense of casting an evaluative eye over it, as Angela Bennie says, ‘to judge well’.  To read it is to be aware of the intensity of the author’s emotional experience, which she shares with the reader in all its raw honesty.  It’s not a journey an empathetic reader can ‘judge’; it’s one that you feel...

The award-winning author was working on The Arsonist (see my review) when her partner and father of her two young children was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive blood cancer.  Transcending all other consequences of this dreadful diagnosis, is her fear of telling the children.  She does not know how to do it, and she researches indefatigably for the right kind of story in our death-denying culture, and she defers telling the boys the news for five months.  The reader can sense the disbelief, desperation and her anguish: she knows that denial hampers preparing for the inevitable.

There is something very powerful and poignant about the way this memoir says so little about a mother’s own terrors while on a quest to protect her children from them.  We witness the unspoken all the same.

Both these parents are wordsmiths, so it is natural that she seeks the stories that will help her children negotiate the likely loss of their father.  In her survey of books that fail to meet her needs and theirs, she ranges across contemporary picture books and classics, and discovers that many of the authors we know (the Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Dahl, Saint-Exupéry, P.L. Travers, C.S. Lewis) were orphaned themselves.  These writers, bereaved as children, wrote enchantments with happy endings, and often embedded in their work is a philosophical framework to deal with the dark. 

About half way through the author addresses the reader directly:

You may never read half the writers I’ve mentioned.  Or you may regard their books as curios, or find their other attitudes sour the writing.  But the point is, the writing itself was the common palliative.  The act of putting words on paper could act as a salve.  Tolkien was explicit that The Lord of the Rings originated from his Seknsuct—German for wistful yearning—to recover through writing ‘that happy childhood which ended when I was orphaned.’

We live in a culture that tells children they can achieve anything if they dare to dream, but as Hooper says, the child as hero needs to have the strength to deal with the quest and its ramifications.  The story structure of separation, adventure and return does not always mean that their loved ones return with them.  We see this in the anthropomorphised story of Charlotte’s Web, and in the ending of The Lord of the Rings.

This is the truth: a sick parent will not always survive, and when that time comes, each child will need to muster all the things they’ve learnt and go on.

In the 1980s I did a postgraduate diploma in Children’s Literature and a large part of my teaching career was as a teacher-librarian, so Hooper’s survey of the emergence of children’s literature as a genre enabled me to revisit the fascinating story of 19th and early 20th century children’s literature.  Anyone who remembers story-telling from their childhood or is engaged in it now as a parent will appreciate her analysis of the wonders of children’s books, even when they have flaws which were not recognised when they were written.

But Bedtime Story is more than that.  Beautifully illustrated by the award winning artist Anna Walker, Bedtime Story is the kind of book I wish I’d read when I was teaching and needed to help nurture some students through a journey such as this… Hooper shares the advice she finds helpful, such as the reassurances that children need.  They need to be told, for example, [the same things that they need to hear when parents divorce]: that they did nothing to cause it; and that they will still be loved and cared for no matter what happens.

Highly recommended.

Author: Chloe Hooper
Title: Bedtime Story
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2022
ISBN: 9781761103513, pbk., 256 pages
Advanced Readers copy courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

The book is due out in May.


Responses

  1. Of course this book is exactly the kind of book I am drawn to. Bonus that it’s by Hooper, who writes beautifully.
    Great review and I can’t wait for its release.

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  2. Very interesting! With my own children, I realised that they were bewildered and embarrassed that I cried when I read my favourite The Little Prince with them. They had not experienced any loss at the time (even now, they still have all 4 grandparents living, for example), so they couldn’t relate to any personal sadness. To them, it was just a made-up story.

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    • Well, you know what they say… in times past death was a regular occurrence in families and children as well as adults were well aware of it. Speaking for myself, it was not until quite recently when my parents died in their old age that I experienced real, profound grief about a personal loss.

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  3. A really thoughtful review, Lisa, and you’re so right about our culture often refusing to deal with the serious stuff. I’m all for positivity and encouraging anyone to believe they can do anything, but it isn’t always realistic, is it? Turning to books is always a good way to obtain solace and certainly Lewis and Tolkien have been authors there for me when I needed them.

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    • It’s such a very difficult situation to be in…. wanting to curl up and howl yourself, but have to put that aside for your children.
      Life’s very cruel for some people.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Children learn about loss through losing pets; this is often a child’s first contact with death surely – the death of animals (wild or domestic). I lost several cats and a dog as a child & remember each vividly, and I read and re-read The Goose Girl (Bros Grimm) because of the death of the beloved horse Falada. Fairy tales are full of very dark stuff.

    Sounds like an interesting book, I am wondering who else she found helpful. I’ll be looking for this when it’s available.

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    • Yes, I think that’s true about pets… but of course not all children have them.
      Then again, many of the children I taught were from war zones, so of course they were only too familiar with death,

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  5. Of course, being by Hooper and about such a topic I’d be interested, though I can’t quite work out exactly what this book is about? Is it a memoir of this period in her life, or is it a study of children’s literature inspired by her situation? The cover is gorgeous.

    BTW Is there a reason you don’t name the husband, given we know who he is? Clearly he has survived (to date anyhow) and I hope he is cured or in longterm remission.

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    • First, yes, it’s both, a memoir, and a guide to children’s lit.
      And secondly, I didn’t know who the husband was until I Googled afterwards, and further, when I did know who he was, I hadn’t known anything about this illness. (Or his private life.)
      That’s because she only ever uses his first name, and, not knowing who he was, I didn’t know whether he survived or not, almost to the end of the book. I interpreted that as a desire for privacy, of a sort, and I respected it.

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  6. I have an ARC of this too and have only dipped in so far, during a lunch break…will return when I have finished it.

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