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Literature / Burgess Bedtime Stories

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The Burgess Bedtime Stories (formerly Little Stories for Bedtime) were a series of stories by Thornton W. Burgess that ran as a newspaper column from 1912 to 1960. The stories chronicled the adventures of various animal characters, mostly based on local wildlife found in the author's homeland in Massachusetts, and (especially in later years) had a strong natural history component as well as frequent conservationist messages.

Many of these stories have been published in book form, and a few were even adapted into an anime as part of World Masterpiece Theater, known as Fables Of The Green Forest.


This work provides examples of:

  • Accidental Hero: Now and then an animal leads a predator away from another without meaning to.
  • An Aesop: Nearly every story or story arc had one, especially in the Just So Stories.
  • Aesop Amnesia: Over the years several story arcs were repeated, leading to characters like Peter Rabbit learning facts and lessons they'd already encountered before. Interestingly, this later got an in-universe explanation in which it was established that Peter really was that forgetful.
  • Always a Bigger Fish/Summon Bigger Fish: A fairly frequent way the animals escape their enemies.
  • Animal Talk: Humans explicitly can't understand or be understood by other animals, but almost none of the other species have such a language barrier.
  • Anthropomorphic Shift:
    • Surprisingly inverted, if anything. The characters were far more anthropomorphic in Burgess's earliest stories and took on more naturalistic behaviors later on.
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    • Played straighter with arthropods, but only to get them on the same level of anthropomorphism as the other characters. In earlier stories, arthropods were only rarely portrayed as actual characters, but later on many were named and held conversations with other animals.
  • Anthropomorphic Zig-Zag: Not as much in the stories, but applied to some characters in the illustrations.
  • The Atoner: Burgess himself can sometimes come across as this. Many later stories repeatedly emphasized the inaccuracy of scientific misconceptions supported by earlier ones. He also covered the immorality of playing harmful pranks on others, despite pranks being a common activity for protagonists in his early works.
  • Author Tract: Many of the stories have a strong anti-hunting theme.
  • Badass Adorable: Johnny Chuck, Little Joe Otter, Jerry Muskrat, Jimmy Skunk, Bobby Coon, Scrapper the Kingbird, Butcher the Shrike... Oh, and Shadow the Weasel, who is The Dreaded among the smaller animals? He looks like this.
  • Bad Ol' Badger: Digger the Badger is portrayed as a grouch that most of the other animals generally stay away from.
  • Badass Bookworm: Old Man Coyote is one of the cleverest of the animals and is large enough to hold his own in most fights.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Buster Bear has both averted this and played it straight depending on the circumstances.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • Johnny Chuck, Jerry Muskrat, Danny Meadow Mouse, Happy Jack Squirrel, Little Joe Otter, Mr. Mocker the Mockingbird, and Lightfoot the Deer are all surprisingly capable fighters for their respective size classes. Even Peter Rabbit has his moments.
    • The straightest example of all is Jimmy Skunk. Quite possibly the politest of all the characters, and yet among the most universally respected, with good reason.
  • Big Eater: Grandfather Frog, as well as many other animals before hibernation. Also, shrews and moles.
  • Break the Haughty: Tends to happen to anyone who gets too haughty.
  • Carnivore Confusion: Predation is treated generally as a fact of life. It's killing for fun that is frowned upon.
  • Cats Are Mean: All the feline characters are described variously as being cowardly, killing for pleasure, and utilizing sneaky, "unfair" hunting tactics.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • Billy Mink was a close friend of Jerry Muskrat in early stories. While his potential as a predator was acknowledged, he didn't attack Jerry. Later on, Billy was described as not being a friend of Jerry at all and tried to prey on him several times.
    • Grandfather Frog started out as a (usually) wise storyteller who ate mostly flies and the occasional fish. As time went on, while he was still regarded as being wise by the other characters, more and more emphasis was put on his big appetite and predation on smaller animals of all kinds.
  • Civilized Animal: The illustrations often portrayed the characters wearing clothes, walking bipedally, and having human-like accessories or domestic settings, but the text was usually ambiguous at best about the presence of such features and was at least just as consistent with portraying them as Nearly Normal Animals.
  • Clever Crows: Blacky the Crow.
  • Constantly Curious: Peter Rabbit.
  • Cowardly Lion: Lightfoot the Deer is often thought of as timid but is a highly respectable fighter when forced.
  • Cool Old Guy: Grandfather Frog, though in later stories this is downplayed in favor of his Big Eater tendencies. Also, Granny Fox, at least to Reddy, and Old Mr. Toad.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Reddy Fox, and Mrs. Reddy and Granny Fox even more so.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Blacky the Crow is a sly mischief maker, but can always be counted on to give warning calls when it counts.
  • Darker and Edgier: With rare exceptions, named characters in early stories had enough Plot Armor to survive most of their predicaments. Later on, while "central" characters were still largely safe from death, many of their young weren't nearly as lucky.
  • Demoted to Extra: Granny Fox and Bowser the Hound became heavily overshadowed by the introduction of Mrs. Reddy and Flip the Terrier respectively.
  • Determinator: Shadow the Weasel.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Peter Rabbit briefly tries to change his name to Peter Cottontail. It doesn't stick.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Some of the characters' names are simply alternate names for their species, including Puma the Panther, Pekan the Fisher, Logcock the Pileated Woodpecker, Veery the Thrush, Linnet the Purple Finch, Whiskey Jack the Canadian Jay, and Egret the White Heron. Also Striped Chipmunk, Old Man Coyote, Bob White, and Redpoll.
  • The Dreaded: Among those small enough to be preyed on him at least (which include the likes of Jumper the Hare), Shadow the Weasel. Not only can he easily track their scent, unlike larger predators he can follow them down into their hiding places. More often than not characters that were pursued by him got away through sheer luck.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The characters were much more anthropomorphized in Burgess's earliest stories, wearing clothes, using human-like gestures, and taking on less of their species' repertoire of natural behaviors. In addition, predators were often described as bullies rather than actual predators. There were also more scientific inaccuracies in the early stories, such as owls being described as finding it hard to see during the day and female spotted sandpipers taking care of the eggs. Perhaps to make up for this, Burgess often emphasized otherwise where relevant in his later works.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Subverted with Farmer Brown's boy. He actually does have a name, Tommy, but he's almost never referred to as such in the stories.
  • Eyes Never Lie: Comes up more than once when the true intentions and desires of a character are exposed by someone looking into their eyes.
  • Feathered Fiend: Many of the predatory birds. Subverted by Ol' Mistah Buzzard, which the other animals mistake for a hawk but is actually a harmless scavenger, and Plunger the Osprey, who only eats fish.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Little Joe Otter earned his name as a pup and retained it into adulthood, rendering it a Non-Indicative Name. While he really does have a fun-loving personality, he is also both a skilled hunter and fearsome fighter.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Farmer Brown's boy, after his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Friendly Enemy: Some of the predators aren't beyond holding fairly amicable conversations with potential prey when said prey is well out of their reach and/or they aren't especially hungry.
  • Gender Bender: Black Pussy inexplicably changes from being a female cat to a male some way into the stories' run.
  • Graceful Loser: Many predators, such as Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote, take it quite well when their prey outsmart or otherwise best them and simply consider the incident a lesson learned.
  • Green Aesop: The series often denounced hunting and the disruption of natural habitats. Some stories also discussed ways in which humans could help local wildlife.
  • Half-Dressed Cartoon Animal: Many of the illustrations depict the characters like this, but there is no indication that this is the case in the text except in a few of the earliest stories, with most references to the animals' clothes being metaphors for their fur, feathers, or skin.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Burgess commonly uses the word "queer". When these stories were written, the term simply meant "strange".
  • Heel–Face Turn: Most prominently, Farmer Brown's boy, though a few unnamed hunters have done it as well.
  • His Name Really Is "Barkeep": When Old Man Coyote tells Peter Rabbit about Digger the Badger, Peter mistakes "Digger" for a simple description rather than a name.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens to Boxer the bear cub after he runs from home.
  • I Am Not Weasel: Ground squirrels aren't gophers, newts and salamanders aren't lizards, shrews aren't moles, Boomer the Nighthawk is not a hawk, Glassy the Glass Snake is not a snake, and Stickytoes the Tree Toad is not a toad.
  • Idiot Ball: Most major characters got handed this at least once. Oftentimes they would learn some sort of lesson from it, but a number who weren't quite important enough died from this.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted, especially in later stories.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sammy Jay and Chatterer the Red Squirrel.
  • "Just So" Story: A number of stories (often told in-universe) used these to explain the origins of certain animal characteristics, with more emphasis placed on Aesops rather than portraying the natural world.
  • Killer Rabbit: Shadow the Weasel and Butcher the Shrike.
  • Left Hanging:
    • In the story arc where Farmer Brown's boy apparently sees a gartersnake take its young into its mouth for protection (a supposed myth that doesn't actually happen in reality), it's never revealed whether that was what he really saw. A later story dealing with the subject implies that such reports are misinterpreted sightings of smaller snakes being eaten by larger ones though.
    • The fate of a raccoon Bobby sees being cornered by hunters is never revealed.
    • The last ever Burgess story arc. For reasons unknown, the conclusion to it (titled "Peter's Last Race") was never published, leaving Peter Rabbit taking a breather in a bramble bush after a close encounter with Whitey the Snowy Owl, feeling his age and yet to reach the Old Briar Patch.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Many mustelids and aggressive birds.
  • A Lizard Named "Liz": Most of the characters have names that relate to traits of their species.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Just about every tetrapod species that can be found in the wild in New England was represented by a named character at some point in the series, and Burgess often found ways to mention animals from other parts of the world, too.
  • Mama Bear/Papa Wolf: Too many to list. In short, don't mess with the young of any species that takes care of its young.
  • The Marvelous Deer: Lightfoot.
  • Meaningful Name: Too many to list.
  • Mistaken for Badass: Buster Bear is hailed as a hero after the other animals see that Farmer Brown's boy is frightened of him, until Buster soon shows himself to be just as frightened of humans. That said, Buster is still a force to be reckoned with among the animals, and soon shows himself to be such when they gather to laugh at him.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: American badgers (and, when the stories were initially written, coyotes) are not native to Massachusetts. Justified when Digger the Badger and Old Man Coyote are both revealed to have been caught and transported by humans to the East from the Great Plains.
  • More Than Meets the Eye: Old Mr. Toad can sing wonderfully, much to the initial disbelief of the other animals.
  • Mother Nature: Often alluded to as the overseer and creator of all life, and sometimes appeared as an actual character, especially in the "Just So" Story-style tales.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: In several stories Burgess claims that while father love is strong, it's not as strong as mother love.
  • Motor Mouth: Jenny Wren.
  • Mugging the Monster: Any time an inexperienced young predator fails to treat Prickly Porky or Jimmy Skunk with respect.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Flip the Terrier.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Butcher the Shrike, Terror the Goshawk, and Killer the Duckhawk.
  • Nearly Normal Animal: Despite the illustrations anthropomorphizing the characters to the level of Civilized Animals, the text descriptions generally portrayed them naturalistically enough to qualify as this, especially in later stories.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Granny Fox is rightly one of the most feared predators due to her experience and craftiness.
  • No Cartoon Fish: Subverted; in some stories fish are shown to have the same level of sentience as the other animals. However, played straight in that few of the stories focus much on fish to begin with.
  • Nominal Importance: Individuals who were the same species and living in the same region as an established main character (such as the character's young) tended to get descriptive titles rather than actual names and were less likely to survive dangerous situations.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Little Joe Otter really was little once upon a time, but has since grown out of his name.
    • Ol' Mistah Buzzard is simply bald, not old-aged.
  • Not Allowed To Die Of Old Age: In spite of the stories running in roughly real time and the characters aging over the years (characters introduced as being young and inexperienced gradually ending up described as being old and experienced, for example), many animals that should have shorter lifespans never die of old age.
  • Old Master: Gradually, many of the main characters grow into this. A notable example of a character who had already attained this status by the time of her debut is Granny Fox.
  • Ominous Owl: True to life, the various owl characters are depicted as being stealthy, frightening predators to their prey.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted on several occasions.
    • Unc' Billy Possum, Billy Owl, and Billy Mink.
    • It's established that many animals of the same species but from different locales share the same name. In one story arc, for instance, Danny Meadow Mouse travels to the seashore on a plane and meets a skunk named Jimmy who is not the same individual as the Jimmy Skunk usually featured in the stories.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In his earliest appearances Mr. Mocker spoke with a Southern accent, similar to his fellow immigrants from the South, Ol' Mistah Buzzard and Unc' Billy Possum, but later stories no longer depicted him with one. Which makes sense, since he's a mockingbird and would easily be able to imitate the local accent.
  • Pintsized Powerhouse: Saw-Whet the Acadian Owl is only the size of a robin, but can kill rats so quickly they have no time to fight back. Also, every single mustelid.
  • Playful Otter: Little Joe Otter.
  • The Pollyanna: Striped Chipmunk and Whitefoot the Wood Mouse have numerous predators, but are also among the most cheerful of the animals.
  • Predation Is Natural: Predation is typically acknowledged as being necessary for survival, but killing for sport or in excess is portrayed negatively.
  • Predators Are Mean: Subverted in general. It's constantly explained that most predators hunt to live, rather than to be "mean".
  • Prickly Porcupine: Prickly Porky.
  • Properly Paranoid: Many of the smaller animals are constantly on lookout and ready to dodge undercover at the slightest notice. It's often made clear that this is quite justified, and that they wouldn't have survived nearly as long as they already have if they didn't do this.
  • Rascally Rabbit: Peter Rabbit.
  • Rascally Raccoon: Bobby Coon.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Farmer Brown. Also, most of the animal parents to their children.
  • Seldom-Seen Species: Far too many to list.
  • Shout-Out: Peter Rabbit's name is an intentional nod to The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
  • Shown Their Work: In general, the habits and behaviors of the characters are portrayed accurately to what is known of their species.
  • Smelly Skunk: Jimmy Skunk. However, it's made clear that Jimmy only sprays when he thinks he is in serious danger.
  • Stock Animal Diet: Subverted. Though many characters have their favorite foods, a common plot point was that most animals do eat a variety of different foods as well (such as Reddy Fox having a fondness for grapes, Inky the black chipmunk hunting and killing a small snake, and Lightfoot the Deer stealing a fish catch and eating it).
  • The Storyteller: Grandfather Frog plays this trope the straightest, but other characters have done the part.
  • Those Wily Coyotes: Old Man Coyote to a T.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Certain young animals inevitably meet their ends this way.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Fat beetles for Jimmy Skunk, sweet clover for Peter Rabbit, chicken for Reddy Fox, and so on.
  • Turtle Power: Spotty the Turtle and Snapper the Turtle.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Many inexperienced predators do this to Jimmy Skunk and/or Prickly Porky. They invariably end up very sorry.
  • Unreliable Illustrator: Many of the illustrations depict certain characters as being more generic-looking than they should be, despite being described as specific species. Prickly Porky in particular got quite a bit of this, with some illustrations making him look more like an Old World porcupine or even a hedgehog. Boomer the Nighthawk was also often drawn as an actual hawk, despite the text almost always stressing that he was not one. There is also the fact that the illustrations tended to depict the characters as Half Dressed Cartoon Animals walking bipedally, even though the stories generally implied that they look and behave more similarly to their real-world counterparts.
  • Wicked Weasel: Shadow the Weasel.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Robber the Rat. Trader the Wood Rat is portrayed positively, however.

Alternative Title(s): Little Stories For Bedtime, Rocky Chuck The Mountain Rat


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