In many of the world’s traditions, the beginning of the new year has long been set apart as a time of repose. In China, the practice of refraining from work during the Lunar New Year echoes back to the agrarian past when farmers would rest from their labors before a new season of planting. One of the time-honored rituals of Oshogatsu (the Japanese New Year) is abstinence from all toil for three days, and the ancient Egyptians also embraced breathing space during their Wepet-Renpet (“Opening of the Year”) festival. As we ease into 2022, rest seems counterintuitive, but our ancestors knew the wisdom of seeking sanctuary.
Exploring the realm of rest in children’s literature yields interesting findings. A number of books that teach kids about animals’ sleeping habits have come down the pike, like Sleep: How Nature Gets Its Rest by Kate Prendergast and Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler. Others, like Bedtime Bonnet by Nancy Redd and Nneka Myers, My Bed: Enchanting Ways To Fall Asleep Around the World by Rebecca Bond and Salley Mavor, and How Do You Say Good Night? by Cindy Jin and Shirley Ng-Benitez reveal how beddy-bye differs—and is similar in some ways—across cultures. And of course, there is no shortage of bedtime stories.
However, children need more than just an education on the sociology of slumber, and they need more than just soporific books that quieten their prefrontal cortexes at night and prepare their conscious minds to transition to dreamland. Children’s books that articulate the sacredness, joy, and indispensability of rest are surprisingly rare but must be added to childhood’s atelier.
Contemporary life is replete with ambient stress—tensions so omnipresent that most adults barely notice them anymore. But ambient stressors—noise (including social media noise), traffic, crowding, the 24-hour news cycle, overscheduling, etc.—are felt acutely by children. Children’s literature has a responsibility to address and denormalize today’s frenetic norm. With very good reason, periods of rest and rejuvenation are embedded in the communal and calendrical rites of most cultures and religions; yet we don’t often talk meaningfully to children about this intangible—and endangered—heritage of rest.
Italian author Italo Calvino wrote that “childhood boredom is a special kind of boredom. It is a boredom full of dreams, a sort of projection into another place, into another reality.” This idea—essentially, that boredom is a prison that children use their imaginations to escape from—lies at the heart of many children’s books, like I Love To Be Bored by Ingrid Chabbert and Sébastien Chebret and The Think-Ups by Claire Alexander. Creating more books that frame boredom in an entirely different way—as a simple invitation to rest—is worthwhile. Meanwhile, the growing crop of children’s books about mindfulness helps kids slow down and notice the world around them. These outward-focused, activity-based narratives must, however, be balanced by perspectives that encourage children to find their inner refuge and embrace their need for regular rest.
Not that rest should be conflated with inactivity. Rest is really an internal state of harmoniousness and of being untethered from life’s pressures regardless of what we are doing. Yet there is value in showing young readers that doing nothing (or very little) sometimes is valuable and worthy of respect. For this reason, the picture book Let’s Do Everything and Nothing by Julia Kuo, which beautifully equipoises a mother’s and daughter’s outdoor adventures and their hours of tranquil, uneventful intimacy, is noteworthy.
More and more books for young readers are being published that alert kids to the world’s injustices and pressing conundrums, many of which seek to instill a sense of activism. But raising empathetic, activist, empowered kids without gifting them with strong, steady habits of rest and renewal is a terrible dereliction of duty.
Summer Edward is a young readers’ editor.