Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
When I received this book as a present while pregnant, I smiled a little with nostalgia: what a classic. Of course, I hadn’t seen Goodnight Moon since I was four. However, when I finally started reading the book to my newborn daughter, I couldn’t help thinking: this is it? This has sold millions of copies?
Goodnight Moon has a plot as thick as my fingernail. A bunny names everything in its room, then says goodnight to each object in turn, then conks out. It takes about sixty seconds to read, ninety if you do it “in a voice full of wonder”. I spent more time reading the longer children’s books we had, and they were better at putting Noinin to sleep, even if she was less likely to understand them. Nevertheless, we kept it in our rotation, and in spite of our dismissal the book began to take on a life of its own. With our nine-month-old daughter, Goodnight Moon is one of the first books to make an impact.
I loved Emily Harnett’s post on the book, which reflects on what the story might mean to a walking and talking kid. However, as a parent who has read this book more than she’s slept (am I kidding?), I’ve wondered what this story means to pre-verbal kids that might not even understand the concept of goodnight. Because, let’s be real, this book attracts babies who would usually digest literature for fiber content. Orally, visually, and structurally—there’s something different for a baby to attend to each of the many hundred times she’ll probably hear it.
First, Goodnight Moon is a poem as much as a story. There are a bajillion children’s books out there in verse, but Margaret Wise Brown had a love for the sounds in words that emerges from slow reading. The book begins with these long “o” sounds, “room”, “balloon”, and “moon” that are built to take a suspenseful inflection. My husband and I will each say these words differently, but we both never fail to channel our inner Morgan Freeman. The later objects listed take on more and more slow and sonorous sounds. “House” and “mouse” slide across the page like a child in socks on a hardwood floor, “brush”, “mush”, and “hush” make the susurrus that is a time-tested soothing aid—some believe because it approximates womb-noise.
This soothing nature also seeps into the story’s organization. I started off the essay knocking the non-plot of this story poem, but I’ve discovered that the object-naming sequence in the book is a large part of its success. The stories we read as adults tend to have a long period of rising action followed by a much smaller period of falling action. The falling action of Goodnight Moon extends much further than the rising action, because more objects are bid goodnight than were originally named, which is true to the desire of a hyped up kid/bunny, but also like the long exhalation of a sleepy infant.
What I didn’t understand when I started watching my daughter grow is how overwhelming the world can seem when we are not ignoring 90% of it. As an adult, I might get out of my car in an unfamiliar place, see a friend and notice her new hairstyle. A baby will study the entire room until she feels secure; the ceiling fixtures, the shape of my nose, the edge of a table all have equal interest. This is partly why putting a child to sleep in a new environment is similar to landing Viking on Mars. For a baby, learning how to recognize and place the features of a room is both immensely comforting and a tool of survival.
At the same time, babies are looking to understand differences in the way objects are presented over time. I am not sure if this was purposeful or done to save cost, but a quirk of the book is that the pages alternate between garishly colored full-page spreads and close ups in grayscale of different objects. Today, a page in grayscale would be higher contrast than what appears in this 1943 original. Yet even so, these changes in coloring let the baby see the same object in a new way. The baby can see the mouse in one corner of the room on one page, on the windowsill in another, and in grayscale on a third. For a pre-verbal baby, decoding this is it’s own story.
This process of making new things old and old things new is where I want to end, because to me it is the most important strategy in the book. Wise Brown’s repetition provides familiarity, but the way she elongates the end by inserting new details mirrors the way we learn about the world, and fascinates. Even as an adult, I am drawn in by the final page. There’s warm comfort in the darkness of the objects scattered around the room, but two stand out, the toy house and the window. First, the little toy house has interior lighting. I love the assumption that this is built on—in a child’s imagination, of course the lights would be lit. The house reminds me of a child’s imagination more generally: illuminated yet inaccessible. Finally, at nine months the window is mostly outside her visual range, but I love the message that awaits her in those panes. The sky outside the windows is neon blue—not scary or even particularly dark. She is invited outside into that brilliance.
—Moira Moody is a mother of one and a teacher of writing at the University of San Francisco. Mostly a writer of fiction, you can find her more recent work at Flyway, The Front Porch Review and The Monongahela Review. She is also a contributing editor to betterthangenos.com.
[Ed: this post was sent in response to another Sensible Nonsense essay on Goodnight Moon. Read that one here!]
Celebrate Women’s History Month with some sci-fi girl power. Visit the infographic and click on authors, including: Octavia E. Butler, Kate Elliott, Patricia C. Wrede and more for some girl power recommended reads: http://www.openroadmedia.com/wsf
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
It’s the perfect day (and month) to revisit our coverage of Ezra Jack Keats’ classic The Snowy Day, which celebrated its 50th anniversary a few years ago. The Snowy Day, a 1963 Caldecott winner, was the first mainstream children’s book to feature a non-caricatured African-American protagonist.
In 2012, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation director Deborah Pope told NPR:
"There was a teacher [who] wrote in to Ezra, saying, ‘The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves.’ These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves."
You can see the rest of that story (and hear the book read, in its entirety, by Reading Rainbow superstar Levar Burton) here.
(OK, I’m tooting my own horn a little here, because I produced this piece, back in my Weekend All Things Considered days, but come on — LEVAR BURTON! Who, by the way, was one of the most pleasant and delightful people I’ve ever dealt with.)
Instead of waiting in her tower, Rapunzel slices off her long, golden hair with a carving knife, and then uses it to climb down to freedom.
Just as she’s about to take the poison apple, Snow White sees the familiar wicked glow in the old lady’s eyes, and slashes the evil queen’s throat with a pair of sewing scissors.
Cinderella refuses everything but the glass slippers from her fairy godmother, crushes her stepmother’s windpipe under her heel, and the Prince falls madly in love with the mysterious girl who dons rags and blood-stained slippers.
Persephone goes adventuring with weapons hidden under her dress.
Persephone climbs into the gaping chasm.
Or, Persephone uses her hands to carve a hole down to hell.
In none of these versions is Persephone’s body violated unless she asks Hades to hold her down with his horse-whips.
Not once does she hold out on eating the pomegranate, instead biting into it eagerly and relishing the juice running down her chin, staining it red.
In some of the stories, Hades never appears and Persephone rules the underworld with a crown of her own making.
In all of them, it is widely known that the name Persephone means Bringer of Destruction.
Red Riding Hood marches from her grandmother’s house with a bloody wolf pelt.
Medusa rights the wrongs that have been done to her.
Eurydice breaks every muscle in her arms climbing out of the land of the dead.
Girls are allowed to think dark thoughts, and be dark things.
Instead of the dragon, it’s the princess with claws and fiery breath
who smashes her way from the confines of her castle
and swallows men whole.
|—||'Reinventing Rescuing,' by theappleppielifestyle (via kitsune-noir)|
And good-night to the cañon…
Arthur I. Keller, from Her letter, by Bret Harte, Boston, New York, 1905.
From Beacon Press, a charming history of devotion: Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden History of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples, by Rodger Streitmatter. Among the couples featured: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, and James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.
As for the joy I get from the stories and booklets, a large part of it is in seeing that so many kids are perfectly willing to write a book (the book may be about fifty words long). They are confident about doing it and about illustrating it. They take obvious pleasure in giving it chapters,…
In honor of #readwomen2014 – an effort to equalize the gender imbalance in our collective reading habits – here are 14 fantastic, timeless reads by women:
- Annie Dillard on presence over productivity
- Joan Didion on self-respect
- Susan Sontag on photography as aesthetic consumerism and a form of modern violence
- Virginia Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary
- Helen Keller on optimism
- Alexandra Horowitz on the blinders of attention
- Anaïs Nin on why emotional excess is essential to creativity
- Hannah Arendt on how bureaucracy fuels violence
- Jennifer Finney Boylan on what it’s like to be a transgender parent
- Anissa Ramirez on saving science education
- Jeanette Winterson on adoption and how we use storytelling to save ourselves
- Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life
- Virginia Woolf on how to read a book
- Susan Sontag on literature and freedom
Artwork above by Joanna Walsh
this is so great!
(wish there was source attached for credit!)
The Joy of Reading #3