Bedtime stories for a teenager? One set of children's books brings a father and son together

Monitor contributor Danny Heitman enjoys reading a children's book series about a wealthy elephant named Uncle to his son. What's surprising about that? His son is a teenager.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Anastasia Galanopoulos reads a book with to her two sons, Vassilis, top, and Andreas George.

This summer, I’ve been closing each night by reading a bedtime story to my son. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, except that my son is 13.

Like most teenagers, Will usually prefers to hang out with cooler people than his dad. He’s also an active and precocious reader who’s been reading independently for a long time. Until recently, I hadn’t read to him in years.

The book that brought us back together is “The Complete Uncle,” the collected stories of the late J.P. Martin, a British minister whose fiction was written for children but is clever and wry enough to be enjoyed by grown-ups, too.

Uncle is a rich elephant that Martin invented to entertain his own children at bedtime, and Martin’s family liked the stories so much that they asked him to write them down, which he did in 1934. The first of the stories wasn’t  published until 1964, when Martin was 84. Martin lived the remaining two years of his life as a minor celebrity in England, where “Uncle” had caused a small sensation. A few of Martin’s “Uncle” stories appeared after this death, but the books fell out of print, with Martin’s legacy kept alive by a small and devoted cult following.

I didn’t know about “Uncle” until 2007, when New York Review Books reissued the simply named “Uncle,” the first book in the series, and a review copy crossed my desk. As I shared the book with Will, then 7, we fell in love with “Uncle” together.

Part of the book’s unique charm comes from the pleasure of dwelling within the self-contained universe of Homeward, the sprawling castle where the title character, an aristocratic pachyderm, is attended by a legion of servants, including his top assistant, The Old Monkey. Uncle lives the life we’d all want to have. He drinks a bucket of cocoa for breakfast, gets presents from his friends, throws parties, takes field trips and shops for treasures, which are happily, in the benign economy of Homeward, often available at bargain prices.

The only thorn in Uncle’s side is Badfort, a community of slackers in a tumbledown village down the road.  Badfort’s leader, Beaver Hateman, despises Uncle’s wealth, and he’s always plotting a grand scheme for Uncle’s downfall. We’re all challenged in dealing with difficult people, but the running gag in “Uncle” is the self-assured elephant’s ready answer when Badfort’s uncouth residents become too unbearable. In one chapter, for example, Uncle extends an olive branch by inviting the Badfort crowd to a pool party. When Uncle’s guests get too rowdy, a trick switch flushes the pool and its occupants out the door – a solution I’ve often wanted after my own visitors grow wearisome. That’s what makes the “Uncle” stories so liberating: Uncle’s quiet confidence in untangling trouble makes us feel that we can handle the world, too.

That's why Will and I devoured the first “Uncle” reissue in 2007, then eagerly consumed the reissue of the second installment, “Uncle Cleans Up,” in 2008. But NYRB didn’t reprint the four other “Uncle” books, and the only vintage copies I could find on the Internet were several hundred dollars apiece. Martin’s loyal fan base had made the out-of-print books highly desirable – but, sadly, out of reach for budget-conscious readers like me.  When copies at the public library also proved elusive, I resigned myself to the likelihood that neither Will nor I would ever enjoy the rest of the series.

Years passed, and over in England, a book editor named Marcus Gipps was also disappointed that so many of the “Uncle” books were unavailable. That’s when he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for publication of “The Complete Uncle.” The campaign proved successful, and Matador, a British firm, published the deluxe volume last year. When the happy news reached me that I could get all of the “Uncle” stories for about 40 bucks, I knew that I’d want them for myself, but I wondered, of course, if my son would still be interested.

But Will hasn’t outgrown “Uncle,” even as a teen, and my own adult affection for the books apparently isn’t unusual. In an introductory essay for the new edition, British author and television personality Will Self confesses to reading “Uncle” long past the socially correct age, then welcoming children as an excuse to indulge Martin’s books again. He now looks forward to grandchildren so that he can have yet another reason to revisit the books.

In the meantime, I am, rather improbably, once again enjoying story time with my teenager. I don’t know if “Uncle” can do this for your teen, but it might be worth a try.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

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