Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Kansas City Star begins the Bedtime Stories Club

 On April 20, 1914, The Kansas City Star announced the formation of a new club, "The Bedtime Stories Club." The paper had been receiving so many letters and drawings from readers (young and old) inspired by "Little Stories for Bedtime" that the time had come to create an organization. Those who had already submitted drawings would be charter members. 

The mission of the club: "to be kind to animals and birds, and feed them, and try to get other boys and girls to do the same thing." [Note that The Green Meadow Club in the People's Home Journal, a club with a similar mission, predates this club by about a year.]

The formation of this club, the announcement says, has made the little people of the Green Meadows, Green Forest, and Smiling Pool happy.

What do you suppose it is? You'd never never guess. Why, the little people you read about in Mr. Burgess's delightful Bedtime Stories in The Star have found out that their pictures are being drawn by hundreds and hundreds of little boys and girls who read The Star or have it read to them by their fathers and mothers. You know that if someone liked you well enough to draw your picture, it would make you happy. Well, the little people of the Green Meadows, the Green Forest and the Smiling Pool are a whole lot like little girls and boys, and they know that little girls and boys who draw their pictures must be their friends. And that is why they are happy, because they would like to be friends with you, but have been afraid you would hurt them. 

The founding of this club directly parallels the narrative of Farmer Brown's boy's conversion from nemesis to friend of the animals.

Of course, some of the little people were not surprised as others to learn they had friends among the little girls and boys. There was Tommy Tit the Chickadee for one dancing about and saying over and over again

"Dee, dee, dee, chickadee! I told you so! I told you so!"

You see Tommy Tit has long been a friend of Farmer Brown's boy and eats from his hand. And then there was Peter Rabbit, who remembered how Mrs. Grouse had been released from her prison under the ice by Farmer Brown's boy. And Chatterer the Red Squirrel told all over again how Farmer Brown's boy had caught him and put him in a cage and then had let him go and fed him all winter.

"You see," said Tommy Tit, "you don't need to be afraid, if you know who your friends are."

"Wouldn't it be nice, " said Peter Rabbit, "if we knew the names of those who drew the pictures. Then we would know for sure who our friends are."

The Star then lists the names and addresses of nearly two hundred young readers. And so begins the Bedtime Stories Club with an interesting and perhaps problematic premise, that membership not only showed one's own love for birds and animals but that one's love would be reciprocated by them.
Kansas City Star, April 28, 1915. The caption mentions the new contract that Thornton W. Burgess had just signed.
Thornton W. Burgess quickly (April 28) came on board to reinforce the premise. Indeed, the editors wrote, he was in a position to respond because Mother Nature had given him "the power to know the thoughts and language of the Little People."

I want you to know how tickled all my little friends of the Green Meadows and the Green Forest and the Smiling Pool are over this club. They think it is perfectly splendid. Johnny Chuck says that if he knew that every little boy and girl was a member of the Bedtime Stories Club he wouldn't ever be afraid and run away when he saw one coming because he would know that there was nothing to run away for. Peter Rabbit says it's the best idea he ever heard of and he's spending all his spare time going about lipperty-lipperty-lip, telling everybody he meets about it. Grandfather Frog says it's what he has waited and waited for and it takes a great load off his mind because he is getting old and nervous and now he won't have to watch out for sticks and stones every time a boy comes over to the Smiling Pool. Jimmy Skunk says that he never was afraid of little boys and girls because they have always seemed to be afraid of him but now he hopes to get better acquainted with them, because if they will only give him a chance he will show them that he can be just as polite as they can.

Sammy Jay says it's too good to be true. But Sammy always is suspicious and I am quite sure that right down inside he is just as pleased as the others. Best of all I've just had word from Farmer Brown's boy that he wants to join. He has found out for himself that love and kindness are all that is needed to make friends with the very shyest of Old Mother Nature's big family.

As the club continued to grow, Burgess wrote again (May 15)

Yesterday I went out to look for Peter Rabbit and Johnny Chuck to tell them how fast the number of their friends is growing. You see it makes me feel so good to know that so very many, many little folks and big folks love Old Mother Nature's children and have promised to be good to them and protect them from their enemies that I wanted to tell Peter and Johnny right away and that when they see anyone roaming with a red button on they will have nothing to be afraid of. But neither was at home and so I am going again the very first time I get a chance.

This makes it explicit--that the animals will be able to recognize the kind children by their badge of membership and then reciprocate their kindness. By means of this fantasy, the world of the story and the world of actually existing forests and meadows converge.

This is shown in sharpest relief via the character of Farmer Brown's boy, a child just like club members, who has seen dramatically the benefits of kindness. On May 27, Burgess had him write for membership.

Bedtime Stories Club Editor. Please may I join the Bedtime Stories Club? I want one of those red buttons to wear all the time. You see I've learned a whole lot in the last two years and the best thing of all is that there is a whole lot more fun in making friends with Old Mother Nature's children than in hunting them and trying to frighten them the way I used to.  I've made friends with a lot of them already, and I want to make friends with all of them.  Tommy Tit the Chickadee will eat out my hand. Peter Rabbit doesn't run away as he used to. Mrs. Grouse is still a little shy, but I think she knows that I am the best friend she has. Chatterer the Red Squirrel comes and takes things right out of my pocket. The last time I was over to the Smiling Pool old Grandfather Frog didn't budge from his big green lily-pad. He just said "Chugarum" which I suppose was his way of saying "good morning."

I've put away all my traps, and I'm never going to get them out again, not even if Unc' Billy Possum does come snooping around my henhouse after eggs. I suppose he thinks he has just as much right to them as I have, and I guess maybe he is right. I know Jimmy Skunk thinks so. Jimmy and I are getting to be pretty good friends. I hope all the rest of the club members will get as much fun out of making friends with the little people of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows as I am having and I think the club idea is simply great. Please send me a button and certificate right away by the next mail. FARMER BROWN'S BOY

(In fact, Farmer Brown's boy would bring his traps out one more time in October, in an attempt to catch Old Man Coyote, but he would immediately regret it.)

By June 10, children in the real world were apparently already disappointed that the fantasized reciprocal friendship with all animals had not yet materialized.  Burgess wrote again, urging patience and practical action.

Dear Fellow Club Members:
Grandfather Frog is getting so excited over the way this club has grown that the other day, when I visited the Smiling Pool, he raised right up on his toes as soon as he saw me: "Chugarum!" said he, and I knew by the sound of his voice that he was very much excited. "Chugarum!" Is all this I hear about that Bedtime Stories Club true? If it is, it's the biggest thing I ever heard of. You know, red always did excite me, and now when I see it in a button I get twice as excited as I ever did before. Do you know there are many little people around here who don't know how to behave now? It's a fact. You see, they want to be friends with all boys and girls, and since they have heard about the club they know they can be friends with the club members. But they're been afraid so long that they don't quite dare let anyone get very close now for fear they may not be a club member. I guess you'll have to tell the boys and girls how it is and ask them to please be patient."

Of course, we'll be patient. That is one of the first lessons we learn from Old Mother Nature. I want all of you to know how delighted I am with the good work being done for my dear little friends in fur and feathers. I have noticed that many of you have remembered that it is not always easy for little birds to get drinking water when they need it, and so you have put it out for them. That is just splendid. See that it is fresh every day, and if possible, put it where pussy will not be able to creep up on the little drinkers. Now is the time when the baby birds begin to try their little wings, and so are in greatest danger. Please watch out for them, and when you see any down on the ground put them up in a safe place out of reach of cats.

Peter Rabbit sends love to all of you and Jimmy Skunk wants me to tell you that he is all ready to make friends with anyone wearing a red button.

Yours for the greatest club in the world. THORNTON W. BURGESS

While the idea that animals will suddenly become "friends" is unrealistic, it is true that birds will be attracted (and thus be more approachable) if you put out drinking water. Likewise, someone with the confidence (granted by a button?) to calmly let a skunk approach, will probably be  rewarded with something akin to friendliness.

Next: The Bedtime Stories Club grows and grows and grows

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