On September 3, the children’s classic Goodnight Moon marks its 70th anniversary. That’s cause for celebration, especially in an era like our own when increasingly television and DVDs rather than books supply children with the stories they know best.
But it is not only the longevity of Goodnight Moon that is noteworthy. Just as important for us today is understanding how the success of Goodnight Moon is inseparable from the past and present children’s book conventions with which it breaks.
Since its publishing debut in 1947, Goodnight Moon, with its text by Margaret Wise Brown and its pictures by Clement Hurd, has sold 48 million copies. Goodnight Moon represents the high point of the partnership between Brown, the author of multiple children’s books, and Hurd, who studied art in Paris during the ’30s with Fernand Leger.
Unlike “Little Red Riding Hood,” Goodnight Moon does not grow out of folklore. Unlike “Cinderella,” it does not depend on miracles. Unlike Make Way for Ducklings, it does not have a plot. There is not even a memorable character in Goodnight Moon. The essence of Goodnight Moon is its faith in the way children invest their worlds with meaning. The central figure of Goodnight Moon is a young bunny who before going to sleep finds it reassuring to say goodnight to everything in his room.
Margaret Wise Brown’s concentration on the ordinary in Goodnight Moon was no accident. As her biographers, Leonard Marcus in 1992 and Amy Gary in 2017, have pointed out, during the ’30s Brown came under the influence of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the founder of New York’s innovative Bank Street School for Children, which from its start was influenced by the progressive education theories of John Dewey.
Mitchell believed that young children are captivated by what they know firsthand and that fantasy can be distracting for them. “It is only the blind eye of the adult that finds the familiar uninteresting,” Mitchell wrote in the introduction to her influential 1921 Here and Now Story Book. “The attempt to amuse children by presenting them with the strange, the bizarre, the unreal, is the unhappy result of this adult blindness. Children do not find the unusual piquant until they are firmly acquainted with the usual.”
Goodnight Moon combines Mitchell’s belief that children’s books should reflect the world that is familiar to them with Dewey’s belief that education should avoid turning the young child into a passive learner. In Goodnight Moon the young bunny’s goodnights are reserved for a world he already knows, and he is the one who chooses his goodnights. The bunny is consistently in control of his narrative, even though in the end the narrative makes him ready to sleep.
Goodnight Moon is a twice-told tale. The book begins by Brown and Hurd acquainting the reader with what is in the bunny’s room. The story opens, “In the great green room/ There was a telephone/ And a red balloon/ And a picture of—/ The cow jumping over the moon.” The enumeration of all that is in the room goes on for seven picture pages. Only after the opening picture pages does the bunny begin his round of goodnights.
“Goodnight room” are the bunny’s first words, and from this point on, his goodnights list duplicates what the child being read to has already seen. The bunny jumps from object to object rather than systematically making his way around his room, but there is nothing confusing about his choices. The connection between the objects he says goodnight to is heightened by how often they appear in rhyming couplets. “Goodnight kittens/ And goodnight mittens/ Goodnight clocks/ And goodnight socks.”
There is an “old lady” in the room—whether the bunny’s mother, grandmother, or a bunny nanny—is never said. She gets a goodnight, but she is not singled out for attention by the bunny. Her presence, like that of a parent, is taken for granted. The bunny does not have a hierarchy of goodnights. He says goodnight to the moon shining through his window, but he also says goodnight to the picture in his room of the cow jumping over the moon. He makes no distinction between the real moon and the painting of a fairy-tale moon.
Toward the end of the story, the bunny is content to look out the window and say, “Goodnight stars / Goodnight air,” but after these goodnights, he acknowledges his own willingness to sleep by saying, “Goodnight noises everywhere.”
In the last pages of Goodnight Moon, the bunny’s room is dark, and he is fully under the covers. It has taken him a while to reach this point. At the start of the story, it is 7:00 on the clock on the bunny’s bureau and the clock above the mantle in his room. By the end of the story, the time is 8:10. The bunny’s goodnights have lasted more than an hour. He has not felt the need to rush them, nor has any adult bunny asked him to hurry up.
The old lady who was knitting and watching over the bunny has left the room. She is no longer needed. The two kittens, who earlier were on the rug playing with the yarn from her knitting, are now curled up in her rocking chair, and the mouse, whom the kittens have no interest in pursuing, has moved from sitting on the floor and the book case to perching on the window sill. Peace reigns, and nobody is worried that the log fire keeping the bunny’s room warm is still burning and has no screen covering it.
For any child interested in saying more goodnights than the bunny, finding the mouse in each picture is a potential challenge, but for adults, there are also surprises. An easy-to-miss copy of Goodnight Moon lies on the bunny’s bureau waiting to be spotted, and on an otherwise blank page, the bunny mysteriously says, “Goodnight nobody.” These small departures from a text designed for children are never explained, but it is easy to imagine that Brown and Hurd wanted to make sure parents didn’t get bored with reading a story their children would want to hear over and over.