In my lifetime list of the great pleasures that life has to offer, reading a book with a young child is near the top. I mean the sort of book where the pictures matter as much as the words and where the interactivity resides simply in the little kid’s comments and your responses. It’s interesting that a New York Times article about tech-hip parents reveals that while those interviewed are exclusively e-book readers themselves, they prefer old-fashioned paper books for their tots.
In an effort to find some good books for kids and get at the source of these magic moments, I recently ran a crowd-sourcing operation on Twitter and Facebook. The question: “The two best books for any small child’s bookshelf?” The clear crowd favorite: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1947, with anything by Dr. Seuss a close second.
So I searched through some boxes in my basement and pulled out our copy of Goodnight Moon, the bright green cover faded to shades of blue, the one I’d read to my daughter 30-plus years back. I reread the little book and asked myself, What makes for a children’s book classic?
Most obviously, such a book must be fulfilling for two vastly different audiences – the child and the adult/parent. So, for example, the Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff and his son Laurent, which feature a Frenchified kingdom of elephants in Africa, were fascinating for both my daughter and my nieces, but left me cold. The Babar plots always struck me as obvious, downright simple-minded, not to mention the bias in favor of colonialism evident on every page.
Goodnight Moon has about as minimal a “plot” as any book could have, yet it works for me – and for tots everywhere. How so? The first page spread, a detailed color scene of a kid bunny in bed in a room filled with much stuff, sets the scene:
In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of –
The cow jumping over the moon
This is a reference to the cow in a picture on the wall in that little bunny’s room. Note the familiarity here. According to the Web site devoted to Margaret Wise Brown (hereafter MWB), her revolutionary approach was to see a child’s ordinary life as the stuff of literature, in contrast to previous authors who tended to rework the exotic content of nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
What’s striking about Goodnight Moon is the very ordinariness of its presentation. This is emphatically not the adventurous world of a later children’s classic like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, in which the little kid protagonist Max goes on a wild and crazy night journey after being banished to his room.
unfolds for eight pages as simply a list of all the things in that great green room. And then on page 9, there’s a subtle turn. We get the other half of the room, full spread now, in much color and detail with a knitting mommy bunny added to the scene along with some kittens playing with yarn. The text now says, “Goodnight room.”
And then we have 22 more pages of “goodnights” to pretty much everything and everybody in that room, one by one. It becomes an everyday litany of a kid’s life. In cinematic terms the book now alternates between pages of close-ups – “Goodnight kittens” and “Goodnight mittens” – and full-screen spreads of that big room.
And the mantra of goodnights rolls on and on, lulling and inducing a near-trancelike state in most children. It’s close to meditation, with just a dash of self-parodying wit near the end. After many, many goodnights, we get a blank page, with the notation, “Goodnight nobody.”
As the book reaches its denouement, color spread by color spread, the great green room gradually darkens till we hit the grand conclusion, “Goodnight noises everywhere.” That final scene shows the familiar room, now dark with our bunny hero asleep, but with just enough reassuring sources of light – the doll’s house windows, the fire in the fireplace, and the moon and stars in the big windows.
Pretty clearly there’s only thing left for a kid to do after a session with this book. If Goodnight Moon is read over many nights, it becomes a kind of bedtime ritual, an incantatory calming zone.
No one knows exactly when Goodnight Moon became a classic, but it had sold 4 million copies by 1990. By the time MWB had her centenary last year, even the English professors of America had begun applying their withcraft to the book. It does make perfect sense, as I learned from the blog English Matters, that MWB would be a fan of the repetitive simplicities of Gertrude Stein.
There’s a 2010 e-book by Claudia Pearson with the wonderful title Oedipal Theory and Symbolism in Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny Trilogy. (Goodnight Moon contains all sorts of cross-linking allusions to another of MWB’s popular works, The Runaway Bunny). In Pearson’s words:
Goodnight Moon only seems simple. In fact it is a surprisingly complex text which relies on Freudian theories of childhood development. Parents and teachers who think it is a simple text about going to bed should first answer the question, whose room is this? Whose bed?
Now that generations of Goodnight Moon acolytes have grown up and become content producers themselves, the book has begun to spin off pop parodies. David Milgrim (a.k.a. Ann Droyd) has written one titled Goodnight iPad, which features, as New York Times reporter Julie Bosman puts it,
a home whose inhabitants are plugged in in every way imaginable, typing on laptops with glowing screens, listening to music, playing video games and watching television. Then the mother figure in the house orders all of the devices shut down, wishing goodnight to “Nooks and digital books,” Eminem and Facebook friends, LOLs and MP3s, and “LCD Wi-Fi HDTV.”
My favorite spin-off is the version in “The Wire” episode where a mother looks out on a bleak Baltimore street scene and recites to her son:
Let’s say goodnight to everybody. Goodnight moon. Goodnight stars. Goodnight po-pos. Goodnight fiends. Goodnight hoppers. Goodnight hustlers. Goodnight scammers. Goodnight to everybody. Goodnight to one and all.
And the kid faithfully repeats it all.
Tune in again next week at 317am for more about the surprisingly colorful life of Margaret Wise Brown herself.