Suzanne Tobias

Bedtime stories may be scarier than you think

Not sure what got us thinking about picture books recently, but the kids and I decided to dig out some old favorites.

“I liked that one with the bakers,” said Jack, 15.

Bakers? I wondered if he meant pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man?

No, it was “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, the dreamy, beautifully illustrated story of a boy’s trip through the Night Kitchen, where he helps a trio of Oliver Hardy-looking bakers make the batter for their morning cake:

“Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!”

Hannah, meanwhile, recalled a tiny little book titled “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” Michael Rosen’s retelling of an old camp chant, with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury:

“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared …”

I didn’t remember much about the book other than the part about tromping through long, wavy grass – “Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy!” My daughter, at 3, would giggle and sing, “Fiffy foffy! Fiffy foffy! Fiffy foffy!”

Hannah more vividly recalled a page toward the back, when the storybook family finally tiptoes into a narrow, gloomy cave and discovers a bear. The creature glowers down at their crouching dog, the whites of its eyes and its sharp claws clearly visible in the darkness.

“Jack was terrified of this page,” Hannah said.

Oh yes, I remembered. After our first reading of “Bear Hunt,” Jack never wanted us to turn the page and reveal that illustration. He hated big, googly eyes or any face that looked wildly distorted. He also hated “Bedhead,” by Margie Palatini, because the bedheaded boy and his parents had crazy, wild-eyed expressions.

Similarly, Hannah never enjoyed the Sesame Street classic “The Monster at the End of This Book,” because Grover begs you not to turn the pages and you KEEP TURNING THE PAGES!

“But the monster turns out to be Grover,” I reminded Hannah. “So everything was OK.”

Not really, she shook her head. “It scared me every time.”

Wow. Memory is such a fickle, intensely personal thing. I look back at our bedtime-story years and think of “Jamberry,” “Barnyard Dance,” “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” and “Armadillo Rodeo,” books we read or sometimes sang together. I remember smiles and laughter, not horrified gazes.

Oh, and that bee song! Hannah piled on. “I thought it would attract bees.”

Wait, what? Are you talking about “Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee”?

Yes, she said. “Whenever you sang that, I thought swarms of bees would come.”

And I thought the worst thing about that song was the cruelty to insects. (Or depending on the version, the idea of licking a squished bumblebee off your hand and promptly retching it up. Who comes up with these preschool songs, anyway?)

We pored over old books that recent night and shared more memories, True Confessions-style. Turns out Hannah thought geese at the park would give her the chicken pox. Both kids loathed Viola Swamp, the witchy substitute teacher from “Miss Nelson Is Missing.” I apologized for the trauma, years too late.

Jack flipped through the “Bear Hunt” book again and looked closely at the illustration that once frightened him so much. Then he shrugged and shook his head.

“I mean, it’s a bear hunt,” he said, “and they’re tromping through the forest with no weapons or anything. What did they think was going to happen?”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.