Dream Stories: Dreams in Children's Picture Books
By Jill Jones

This is an analysis of a collection of ten picture books that deal with the subject of dreams. The dream stories in the collection are dreams that take place while sleeping rather than aspirations, and although children may not be the ones dreaming in each of the stories, the picture book is designed for children to read or to have the story read to them.

The purpose of this project is to examine how dreams are presented in children's picture books, especially since many stories are read to children before bed. I wanted to discover if there are common themes that are taught to children about dreams. I also wanted to see how authors and illustrators attempt to explain the mystical land of dreams.

I found the items to include in this collection by using the fifth edition of Best Books for Children: Preschool through Grade 6 edited by John J. Gillespie and Corinne J. Nooden. I also used the library catalogs of Denton Public Library and UNT doing searches for dreams and juvenile books. All of the books chosen were part of the Denton Public Library collection.

Items in Collection
(Note: Since I will be discussing the illustrations in my analysis, I have included the name of the illustrator in each citation.)

Brown, Ruth. Mad Summer Night's Dream. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1998. Illustrated by the author.

The dreamer in this story, a young girl with blonde hair, falls asleep "one midsummer night in winter," and off we go into a land where everything is all mixed up and nothing is as it should be! She sees flowers that sing, while birds are in bloom, and cats with opposite stripes preparing to fight. With her trusted teddy bear by her side, jumps in a ditch to save the cats, screams - and wakes up, safe and sound in her bed, in the morning light, where everything's right.

Griffith, Helen. Plunk's Dreams. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1990. Illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb.

This is the story of John and his dog Plunk. While Plunk sleeps, he often moves around. John's dad thinks Plunk is dreaming of chasing rabbits, and his mom thinks Plunk is dreaming of his dinner. But that's not what John thinks! John shares his fantastic thoughts about what Plunk is dreaming of - being in an Indian canoe, meeting space dogs, and being attacked by a giant cat. When Plunk dreams with a smile on his face and thumps his tail, John's parents think Plunk is having a dream about John, and John agrees!

Harrison, Troon. The Dream Collector. Buffalo, NY: Kids Can Press, 1999. Illustrated by Alan and Lea Daniel.

This is the story of Zachary, who wakes up extra early one morning to find dream creatures wandering the streets. It seems that the Dream Collector's truck has broken down and he needs help to get it fixed or else all the dreams will become real and permanent when the sun rises. Zachary gets him some tools to fix the truck while he goes collecting dream creatures, including a zebra, parrot, and dragon, and herding them into the truck. He has trouble finding his own dream, a shaggy dog, and is still looking for it when the Dream Collector's truck is ready to go. The Dream Collector lets him have the dog - if he promises not to dream of rhinoceroses again - and drives off into the distance.

Hazbry, Nancy. How to Get Rid of Bad Dreams. New York: Scholastic, 1983. Illustrated by Roy Condy.

Have you ever wondered how to get rid of bad dreams? This story will answer all of your questions, providing instructions on how to escape from just about every bad dream there is. Scary monsters chasing you? "All you have to do is…" The remedy for any and all scary dream creatures is in this book. And if all else fails, "run like mad and jump into bed with Mummy or Daddy or Grandma or Grandpa."

James, Betsy. The Dream Stair. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson.

The dreamer in this story is a young girl of Native American descent. Her grandmother tucks her in with a candle to keep her "safe in the dark/ safe in my heart" and instructions to travel up and down the dream stair and tell her all about it in the morning. Our dreamer first travels up the dream stair, up past the angels and plays until it is time to go down, past her room where she is still sleeping, and down the stair, down into the cellar room, where again she plays until morning. When she wakes up, she goes to tell her granny all about the fantastic things she saw and did.

Kvanosky, Laura McGee. What Shall I Dream? New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1996. Illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner.

This is the story of Prince Alexander, who just can't decide what to dream about. First, the King, his father, calls together the Dream Brewers to brew him the perfect, kingly dream. Alexander doesn't like it. Then the Queen, his mother, calls the Dream Weavers to weave him the perfect dream. Alexander doesn't like this one, either, and by now is getting very upset. How will he sleep if he doesn't know what to dream? His grandfather calls the Dream Sweepers to whirl him the perfect dream. This one is no better. Alexander is so tired that while on a walk with his nursemaid Henrietta, he falls asleep in her lap. She tells him to discover his own dream, and he does, the most spectacular, perfect dream of all!

Melmed, Laura. Jumbo's Lullaby. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1999. Illustrated by Henri Sorenson.

This is the story of little Jumbo, the famous circus elephant, when he still lived on the African savannah. Applying the saying that elephants never forget, the author imagines Jumbo remembering the lullaby his mother sang to him to get him to sleep. The lullaby imagines what other African animals are dreaming of - the ostriches, the lion cubs, gorillas, rhinoceroses, gazelles, zebras, hippopotami, and monkeys.

Musgrave, Susan. Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs. Custer, WA: Orca Book Publishers, 1998. Illustrated by Marie Louis Gay.

The dreamer in this story is a young girl who is getting ready to start Grade One. She wants to "stay up early" so she won't have any more bad dreams. Her world is full of fantasy with her stuffy Lion and her cat Pine-Cone. Her dreams include a hot dog that is going to eat her head off and flying around the world in a red bathtub. She makes it to school and finds out it isn't so bad, even if it isn't as fantastic as her dreams.

Osofsky, Audrey. Dreamcatcher. New York: Orchard Books, 1992. Illustrated by Ed Young.

This is the story of an Objiway baby who sleeps, smiling and dreaming, on a cradleboard. Ojibway children are told to "dream and remember." The baby dreams and sleeps throughout the day, seeing Ojibway life all around her. Her sister weaves her a dreamcatcher that catches all the bad dreams and only lets in the good ones. The baby sleeps peacefully throughout the night, protected by the dreamcatcher.

Pilkey, Dav. When Cats Dream. New York: Orchard Books, 1992. Illustrated by the author.

Perhaps my personal favorite, this is the story of cats - all cats - and how their life is pretty humdrum, black and white, most of the time. Until they go to sleep and dream, that is. The cat's world comes alive in dreams, with vibrant colors and impossible actions, like the fishbowl becoming an ocean and dogs perpetually sleeping. Unfortunately, the cat has to wake up, back to the old gray world, until he can find a nice soft lap to snuggle into - and go to the dream world again!

Story Analysis

The ten stories contained in this collection are all about dreams and they are all designed for children. Dreams are not yet fully understood by adults, and the books reflect his. Dreams can be made into whatever the author and illustrator want them to be, which takes us into a fascinating world of make-believe. Each story presents a different idea of what dreams are and mean, with a few general overriding themes. Answering the question of what each story tells us about the land of dreams is the central question of this research project, so I will explain what all of the stories tell us about dreams individually and then draw out the overriding themes.

Mad Summer Night's Dream tells us that dreams are crazy mixed-up worlds, but everything is OK when you wake up. The dream world can be scary and dark, but the sun always comes up every morning.

In Plunk's Dreams, we learn that even our pets dream, and children know best what their pet is dreaming about. The dream world of pets is also very fantastic, because Plunk meets space aliens that look like him and chases a cat that grows into a monster that gets him back.

The Dream Collector shows that dreams can come true. Again, the dream world is a place with all sorts of fantastic creatures, like dragons, zebras, and pirates. Another fanciful creature is the Dream Collector himself, who has what he describes as a pretty regular job, just collecting the dreams every night.

How to Get Rid of Bad Dreams tells us that bad dreams aren't scary. There are ways to deal with all of the scary things that may come in the night, and ways to get rid of all those scary monsters.

The most complex story in a compact package is The Dream Stair. To me, this story really exemplifies a psychological approach to dreaming, told in a way that is very accessible to a child. The child goes up the dream stair and down the dream stair, like in our psyche, going into the highest highs and the lowest parts of ourselves. The Dream Stair takes us up past the angels, and down into the depths.

What Shall I Dream? teaches us that only we can decide what is the perfect dream for us. This is almost like a folktale, because it takes place in a non-specified time involving a prince, a king and a queen, as well as some supernatural elements. It does have a modern twist, where the real life of a king or queen isn't all that interesting to Alexander.

In Jumbo's Lullaby, again, all animals dream, and even their dreams are full of fantastic fun, where the world is all mixed up. This sweet lullaby encourages us to go to the land of dreams where all the animals are having such fun.

In Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs, we learn that dreams can be bad and scary, but also lots of fun. As the title says, dreams are more real than bathtubs, especially to six year olds!

Dreamcatcher presents the Ojibway tradition of making dreamcatchers for their children that protect them from bad dreams. This story shows how important dreams are to the Objiway culture, in the remember and share part of the story

When Cats Dream shows us once more that our pets have dreams, too. The world of dreams is a fascinating world where all sorts of goofy things happen. It is much more colorful and exciting than everyday world.

There are several overriding themes among the lessons these stories tell us about dreams. The one that finds its way into every story is the fact that dreams are a colorful, exciting, and magical world where out of the ordinary things happen. You can fly, you might meet space aliens, and strange creatures live there. This is all the more amazing, because it happens inside your head. However, another theme is that sometimes, bad dreams can happen. Bad dreams are explored in How to Get Rid of Bad Dreams, Dreamcatcher, and Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs. But everything will be fine when you wake up, or when your parents are there, as shown in How to Get Rid of Bad Dreams, The Dream Stair, and Mad Summer Night's Dream. The final theme I see over several of the stories is the theme of animal dreams. Animals dream just like humans in Plunk's Dream, Jumbo's Lullaby, and When Cats Dream.

Although the illustrations and images are important in all the stories, I would like to focus my analysis on the images in only six of the stories. I could not eliminate any of these six, because the images in these six stories are essential to the telling of the story. The images in all the stories show the dream world as a colorful place where magical and unusual things happen.

The illustrations are especially important in When Cats Dream. The normal world of the cat is presented in black and white, while the dream world is presented in bright, vivid colors that overlap into the beginning of the dream and the end of the dream pages. Also of interest is the use of famous portraits from the art world for the napping place of the cat. Whistler's Mother holds the cat for the first dream, and the Mona Lisa provides a comfy lap for the ending dream. Even the cat itself changes from a normal looking cat in the black and white pictures into a brightly colored and stylized version in the dream world. The typeface also changes into italics when describing the dream world. The illustrations provide the key cue that the dream world of the cat is where we now are, both by the bright colors and the fabulously impossible scenes that are drawn.

In Dreamcatcher, all of the pages have a border with a delicate flower design, which I assume is an Ojibway motif. A note to explain the image would have been helpful. The colors used are all warm and inviting, except of course, the pictures of the scary dreams being kept away from baby by the dreamcatcher. The final image of a sunrise, with no words, is especially lovely.

The images in Jumbo's Lullaby are lush and gorgeous and probably the main reason the book was included in this collection. On one side are detailed and accurate paintings of African wildlife, and on the other, the animals star in a fanciful dream world where zebras are multi-colored and hippopotami have butterfly wing. The paintings are still gorgeously accurate, just more fun.

In What Shall I Dream? the pictures are full of intricate detail in bright pastel colors. The illustrations definitely create the world of Prince Alexander as well as his dream world. The most moving images were those of the Dream Brewers, Dream Weavers, and Dream Sweepers. These fantasy characters that have special insight to the world of dreams were painted with fancy and motion. The Dream Collector also presents a man with a special insight into the dream world, the Dream Collector himself. The illustrations in this story are brightly colored, realistic pictures that create a world where you can almost believe that a dream collector comes by every morning in his dream collecting truck to carry off all of our dreams.

In Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs, the text is really ingrained into the illustrations with some words taking on the shape of creatures mentioned, like worm. The backgrounds are textured, and fanciful colors are used that reflect the child's fanciful view of life. The typing of the story varies with the emotion of the words, with the path of the story. The people are very detailed, and the colors are not true to life, but exaggerated, like a purple tree. In this story, the text of the story cannot be taken out of the pictures without very real loss.

Although it seems obvious, it wasn't until I examined this collection of picture books closely that I realized how indispensable the illustrations are to each of the stories. Much of the story is told in the pictures rather than the text of the story.

The actual stories that are written in each story vary as greatly as the illustrations. I want to compare two different styles of stories exemplified by four of the stories in the collection. Two of the stories are longer narratives, The Dream Collector and What Shall I Dream?, and two stories have a shorter, rhyming style, Jumbo's Lullaby and Mad Summer Night's Dream. The stories with the longer narrative are more complicated and involve more than one main character. The Dream Collector has a complicated plot of explaining what a dream collector is, how he has to repair his truck before sunrise, and sending Zachary out on a mission to round up the dreams. Trying to fit this story into short, rhyming lines would be much more difficult than the narrative style allows. The dialogue also allows Zachary and the Dream Collector to become more real characters. What Shall I Dream? also presents a complicated story where many characters are involved in helping Alexander find his right dream. Without dialogue, and the rich description of his far-away world, the story would not be as meaningful.

On the other hand, Jumbo's Lullaby is a soothing story and obviously compares with a lullaby. The sounds are meant to lull the elephant, and maybe the child, into the sweet world of dreams. Shorter lines and softer, rhyming sounds with a repetitive refrain make the most sense for the story. Mad Summer Night's Dream uses shorter, rhyming lines as well, and for this story, they are used to make nonsensical statements about the mixed-up world of dreams. The silly puns are better suited to shorter statements, and the plot is more nonsensical than complicated. Because there is only one character observing her dream world, no dialogue is necessary to advance the story.

Another point I wanted to consider with the dream stories is how the main character is portrayed. I will focus on the stories in the collection that have a young child for the main character. I also want to address how adults are portrayed in the stories. Boys are the main characters in What Shall I Dream?, Plunk's Dream, and The Dream Collector. Any child who has a dog should be able to relate to John in Plunk's Dream. The best part of Plunk's Dream is that John, the child, knows his dog better than the adults in the story. The adults, except for the lower class nursemaid, don't know very much about dreams in What Shall I Dream? either. Girls are the main characters in Mad Summer Night's Dream, The Dream Stair, and Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs. No adults are present in Mad Summer Night's Dream. The grandmother in The Dream Stair is presented as a loving guide to both the highs and lows of dreams, as well as the person the dreams should be shared with. In Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs, the older sister of the dreamer thinks the things the main character says and dreams about are pathetic and laughs at her. Her mother is presented as kind, but getting old. Children of both sexes and all types are presented in How to Get Rid of Bad Dreams. Since several situations are presented, this provides more opportunities for different children to identify with the characters in the story.

I think using a young child as the main character that the dream is actually happening to is an effective way of relating dream stories to children. Adults were generally presented in a supportive way, even if the children knew more about dreams than the adults did.

In the wide variety of stories, just within the ten chosen for this collection, I have learned that there are many different and valid ways of portraying dream worlds to children. This difference can be shown in the overall themes of the stories, the differing styles of illustrations, the different methods of writing the story, and in the development of different characters that children will relate to.


The world of picture books and children's literature is so rich and meaningful. I was exposed to such a wide variety of stories and illustrations while examining stories simply about dreams. I am truly looking forward to taking more coursework in children's literature, and hopefully, a career helping children explore this vast and varied world. After completing this project, limited by the time I have had to spend on less-enjoyable projects for other classes, I have several ideas of how this research could be expanded. The set of dream stories could be further subdivided into stories just relating to Native American cultures, or perhaps only folktales, or animal dream stories. A more ambitious and psychology-oriented project may actually try to study whether reading these stories to children will influence their perception of dreams. The analysis could also be expanded to cover the history of children's literature, how dream stories change for children as they get older, and how dream stories for children are told on the Internet. This project was definitely the most enjoyable project I completed this semester, and I feel that although I have learned so much, there is so much more that stories have to teach me.