N has just turned seven, and her interest in books continues to evolve. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t still love the ones that resonate with very young children as well. A while ago we pulled out a book we hadn’t read in a long time, but one that we used to read often, and that has been adored by many families since it was first published in 1947. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon reads like a lullaby and has that feeling of “hush” all the way through, in the text and also in Clement Hurd’s shadowy pictures, with their rich jewel tones. I asked N if she remembered the book from when she was younger, and she said “Sort of,” and then sat listening, soaking up the simple story of a little rabbit falling asleep in the comfort of his bedroom, with all his familiar things drifting off to sleep with him.
Goodnight Moon is a fine one to read aloud. My favourite part is “Goodnight comb, goodnight brush, goodnight nobody, goodnight mush,” because of the way the illustrations shift with the words – brush and comb are depicted in the cozy “great green” room with flames glowing in the fireplace, and “nobody” gets a stark white page of nothing. I always whisper that part, and love the underlying message that a child’s room is a safe place; there is nobody there, and saying goodnight to him reinforces that fact.
It surprised me how well I recalled my earlier readings of this story, and how naturally I sank into the same rhythm when I read it this time. We went through the book a couple of times that night, and then put it back on the shelf, and I didn’t think about the story again until several days later, when N spontaneously wrote her own version. She got a bunch of paper (she often uses the backs of the drafts of my manuscripts), stapled the sheets together, and started writing.
In the dark dark room there is a dark dark bed.
In the dark dark bed there is a still little kid,
And under the dark dark bed there is a dark dark ghost.
And in the dark dark room there is an old lady whispering hush,
And three little kittens and a pair of red mittens
In the dark dark room.
In the dark dark room everything was quiet….
In the light light room there was a big sun in the window.
In the light light room there were three kittens
And me playing in the light light room.
And in the light light room there was music.
Margaret Wise Brown was a teacher at a groundbreaking alternative school in New York, which focused on new, creative ways to help children learn to their fullest potential. She paid close attention to how kids’ minds worked and what resonated with them in stories. Building on Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s “here and now” philosophy, Brown believed children wanted to read about things that actually happened in their lives, not just about princesses and dragons. The world of storytelling was making leaps and bounds into real life – so even though bunnies don’t wear pyjamas, Goodnight Moon is about going to bed as night falls, and the routine is one a child understands right in his core. And the story beautifully captures the connection children have to the things in their room – their belongings, which evoke a sense of belonging.
In 1952, when she was just 42, Brown died suddenly of an embolism. In those short years she had published widely and achieved celebrity status. A 1946 Life magazine profile by Bruce Bliven stated that “her seven publishers combined are unable to keep up with her output. To avoid flooding the market, Miss Brown has adopted three noms-de-plumes … [and] manages to feel entirely free from jealousy toward her pseudonym selves.” At her death she left behind 73 unpublished manuscripts, found by her sister Roberta, who made some unsuccessful attempts to sell them and then tucked the treasures away in a cedar chest – some 500 pages fastened with paper clips and wrinkling with age over the years. In the early 1990s they were discovered by Amy Gary, who maintains a website about Brown’s life and work.
But it’s the old Goodnight Moon that lives on most strongly in the imaginations of parents and children alike. Hurd’s clever illustrations change like dreams do: the red balloon appearing and disappearing; the socks vanishing from the drying rack. With each picture, the moon rises in the sky, and the green room grows darker.