Tucked In: The Legacy of Goodnight Moon

Peter Wood

Editor's introduction: This article originally appeared in National Review Online on January 4, 2002. We reprint it here as an homage to this nearly 70-year old classic children's story.

Baby Kate is outdoors on a blanket, bundled against the autumn chill in the photograph her parents sent for Christmas. It is midmorning daylight and about as far away from the great green room as a two-year old may get, but still Kate is clutching her favorite book, Goodnight Moon.

When Margaret Wise Brown woke up one morning in 1945 with this story in her head, she mistakenly titled it Goodnight Room. The great green room is indeed more than just the setting. It is, as Leonard Marcus describes it, “the world as a place both near at hand and vast beyond measure, toy bright yet shadow tinged, comfortingly familiar yet at times also fantastically strange.”

But the title Goodnight Room would have impoverished the book by insisting too much on the interior. The great green room, capacious as it is, is not the World. Outside, glimpsed through the windows in Clement Hurd’s pictures, are the moon and the stars. And the little story ends with a fading away from the local and the particular: “Goodnight stars / Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere.”

The chill of the outside universe is written and drawn into the story in other ways too: the fire blazing in the fireplace, the blankets on the bed, the pair of mittens clothespinned to the drying stand, and the quiet old lady’s winter knitting. The implied world beyond the walls is cold and snowy, but not hostile or dangerous.

In fact, the great green room has a hint of the Peaceable Kingdom. The two long-haired kittens gambol on the braided rug and play with the old lady’s yarn, but ignore the mouse that scurries from rug to mitten stand, and from mush bowl to windowsill. The mouse provides one of several lines of near-narrative that Hurd conjured with his illustrations out of Brown’s minimal text. Hunting for the mouse from frame to frame is one of the child reader’s pleasures.

Hurd also tucked in some small pleasures for the adults. On the bookshelf are collections of unidentifiable volumes—except one, a slim green volume resting ajar against fatter tomes. Look carefully and you find it is The Runaway Bunny, Hurd and Brown’s 1942 collaboration. Later we get a glimpse of the picture on the wall above the old lady’s head, which turns out to be one of the illustrations from The Runaway Bunny, showing the mother rabbit as a fisherman capturing her child-turned-fish.

Brown’s words draw attention to two other paintings on the green walls: “the cow jumping over the moon” and “three little bears sitting on chairs.” The Mother Goose and Brothers Grimm references are reassuring points of familiarity, and Hurd offers innocent illustrations, except that the “three little bears sitting on chairs,” seem to be sitting beneath the same picture of the “cow jumping over the moon” that appears on the facing page. Next to the bunny’s bed lies another book, which on close inspection turns out to be…Goodnight Moon.

Even the comb and the brush turn out be not quite so innocent as they appear. According to Leonard Marcus’s The Making of Goodnight Moon: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective, the comb and brush appeared first in Edward Steichen’s 1930 book of photographs for children, The First Picture Book. Steichen and Brown were both influenced by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Mitchell was a professed opponent of traditional nursery literature and taught that young children would benefit more from stories and images that reflect their “here and now.” Steichen obliged with a collection of photographs of familiar objects, and thus the comb and brush of Goodnight Moon come trailing a history of progressive educational theory.

In Goodnight Moon, however, that theory turns around and begins to erase itself. The great green room doesn’t win the hearts of small children because it is filled with the ordinary. It captures the child because it transforms the ordinary into something richer and more complete.

The Goodnight Moon world, however, does pose some small puzzles. Why does this small child have a telephone on his dresser? Why do the mittens hang next to socks in some pictures but hang alone in others? Why does the fire in the fireplace not burn down between 7:00 PM on the first page and 8:10 PM on the last page? Why does the lamp on the table next to the bed still shine dimly and cast shadows after it has been turned off?

Hints of regression and self-reference and visual puzzles aside, Goodnight Moon is deservedly one of the world’s best-loved children’s books. Clement Hurd’s pictures of the “great green room” and Margaret Wise Brown’s ineffably quiet rhyme on the edge of sleep cast a spell that lasts long into the night.

Anyone eager to have the spell broken can turn to the new re-issue of Brown and Hurd’s 1949 sequel, My World, to which HarperCollins has tacked on the claim “a companion to Goodnight Moon.” My World seems to present the diurnal life of the not quite somnolent bunny in Goodnight Moon. But now we are in windows-open summer and the great green room is replaced with many settings: toy-cluttered playroom, kitchen, garage, bathroom, dining room, nursery, back porch and more. But Hurd’s pictures are lifeless and prosaic, and Brown’s text is vapid:

            Mother’s chair.
            My chair.
                        A low chair.
                        A high chair.
                        But certainly my chair.

The publishers are busy puffing My World, but children seem to recognize it for what it is. Several parents posting their comments on Amazon.com say they bought the book with great anticipation only to find their two year olds bored with the whole affair. “The language is unpoetic and the story dull,” says M. H. Dolane. “My son can listen to and look at Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny ten times each time we sit down with them. We barely got through My World once,” says another mom.

The curiosity of My World is that a book so recognizably cut from the same cloth as Goodnight Moon could fall so short of that masterpiece. The failure in some sense magnifies the original accomplishment. Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) was not a great writer, and Clement Hurd (1908-1988) was a so-so illustrator. Both were prolific, but only a handful of their work has stood the test of time. In Goodnight Moon, Brown transcended the limitations of the Bank Street College orthodoxy and her fascination with Gertrude Stein, and Hurd achieved a charm and imaginative concentration beyond his usual scope.

Parents of children entranced by Goodnight Moon might well wish to see the reissue of a different book. Sean Kelly’s 1993 Boom Baby Moon, illustrated by Ron Hauge, is a warm-hearted parody of Goodnight Moon. A few of the references are dated, but slightly older children will be delighted with the room that now contains “a silent dehumidifier and a space-age plastic pacifier.” The quiet old lady has been replaced with a Swiss au pair (“Au pair, bon soir”) and the spirit of the original somehow survives:

            Goodnight thermos of sterile water
            And omnes opera of Beatrix Potter.

Baby Kate’s delight in Goodnight Moon is a small testimony to something right in our world. Ultimately, children respond deeply to these images of peace and security because they feel them to be real. Beyond our wars, real and cultural, we provide that assurance. Goodnight noises everywhere. 

Image: "Goodnightmoon10" by 新兰平叶 // CC BY-SA

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