Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book Review: Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories Volumes 1-4

Title: Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, Volumes 1-4

(Hurrah for Amazon for coming right up with a beautiful image of the first omnibus edition of Maxwell's first four collections of "Bedtime Stories." Only $13...yes, and check out the next seller's price!)

Author: Arthur S. Maxwell

Date: 1927

Publisher: Review & Herald

ISBN: none

Length: each reprinted volume is paginated separately—over 300 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white drawings and photos

Quote: “But there were two Carolines…the home Caroline and the school Caroline…[T]he home Caroline was a cross, pouty, grumbly, growly, and disobedient Caroline, quite unlike the Caroline that everybody saw outside and thought such a nice girl.”

Arthur S. Maxwell has gone down in history as the author of The Bible Story, the ten-volume, splendidly bound and gorgeously illustrated set of Bible stories for children. This was by no means his only contribution to the Christian literature of the twentieth century. He was the editor of various church magazines like Our Little Friend, the author of a few books for adults, and also the author of Bedtime Stories.

There were many, many volumes of Bedtime Stories; more than thirty first editions, each of which was allowed to go out of print in a few years, and then a variety of reprint collections containing only the less dated stories with fresh up-to-date pictures. Volumes 1-4 may have been the first reprint, an omnibus edition in which four thin books were reprinted and bound together to make one full-sized book.

“Uncle Arthur” continued to write these stories—all retellings of stories people reported to him as true—between 1927 and shortly before his death in 1970.

“The Two Carolines,” which first appeared near the beginning of Volume 1, probably reappeared somewhere in all the reprint editions. In most of the Bedtime Stories Maxwell changed the names and identifying details; this one was apparently shared by a real “Caroline Herman.” Caroline was cured of lapsing back into bad manners at home when her teacher overheard her talking rudely to her mother.

Not all the Bedtime Stories were about how children cured their faults. Several, especially before the Bible Story became a separate series, featured retold Bible stories. Some were about historical events. Some were about nice things children did, and some were about life-and-death adventures. Volume 2 summarized “The Story of Ships” and  “The Story of Balloons and Airplanes”:  “In a little while airplanes will probably be as common as motorcycles,” Maxwell speculated in 1928. “Perhaps boys and girls will…fly to school!” 

Many children who were and were not Seventh-Day Adventists grew up with one or more volumes of Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories during the twentieth century. Children who came from relatively happy families loved these books. My brother and I did.

Nevertheless, a few years after dear old Mr. Maxwell passed on, the opinion of the Seventh-Day Adventist church shifted. Apparently too many children who had grown up in S.D.A. homes experienced the Bedtime Stories, even the historical ones, as one big guilt trip. The moralizing that was actually refreshing to kids who also watched the occasional Roadrunner or Scooby-Doo cartoon, and even read the occasional Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys novel, became unbearably oppressive to kids who weren’t allowed to read other kinds of stories. So Adventists stopped marketing the books that had formerly been their second best sellers for children. The ways of Adventists are passing strange.

My copy of Volumes 1-4 is…a survivor, to say the least. It was bound to stay bound, printed on good-quality “slick” but not glossy paper. It’s survived exposure, two fires, being stored in barns and chewed by puppies, being hauled around in the backs of trucks, being cleaned with bleach solutions repeatedly.  It’s a tough little volume, and not only continues to hold together when closed and lie flat when opened, but has even preserved some of its original dark red color. It's not as pretty as the one somebody else has photographed for Amazon's archives, but still, this book was designed to make the publishers of ordinary, shoddy, short-lived children’s books feel ashamed of themselves.

Every book given to children should only be as durable, in physical quality and in content, as Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. Of course, their tone is quaint and corny and avuncular and, at this period, veddy veddy British. (Maxwell later lived in the U.S. and in Australia, and cultivated a more widely accessible vocabulary; this book is English through and through.) Even so, their mix of moralizing with adventures and inspiration appeals to healthy, happy children, today, probably as much as it did in 1927. There aren’t enough copies of the original Bedtime Stories to go around. That’s a pity, because every child deserves at least one.

I can offer this edition online for $15 per copy + $5 per package, today. That will change the minute someone clicks on the Amazon photo link. The good news is that the copy I have for sale in the real world is not in such good condition. Local lurkers may haggle down. Online readers, send $20 to either address at the very bottom of the screen.