Saturday, December 18, 2010

In Defense of Goodnight Moon

[Note:  Typical me--didn't notice the spelling mistake (since corrected) in the title.  I am sure the Brits didn't even notice.]

When a new mom asks for a book recommendation, the first book I think of is Goodnight Moon.  But it has come to my attention lately that some people just don't appreciate a literary bowl full of mush the way I do.

Of course, I like it because of the science:  The room darkens as night takes over (astronomy), a fire burns in the hearth and dries the mittens (chemistry and physics), there is a telephone (electricity and acoustics), a comb and a brush are potential sources of static (electricity), the colors red and green are part of the visible spectrum (see how they fade as the room grows dark!), kittens romp (animal behavior) and the old lady sits in a rocking chair (momentum).  And how long can that bowl full of mush endure (mycology)?

Well.  Not really.

Actually, there are plenty of reasons for me to dislike Goodnight Moon.  It has all of the annoying problems that I frequently bemoan when I read children's books.  For one thing, the poetry doesn't quite work, and the lack of scheme makes the occasional rhyme more of a surprise in this book than in a poem with measurable meter. It has a miserable commonplace vocabulary.  And it really doesn't go anywhere, but rambles on sleepily in a stream of bedtime consciousness.  And yet...I love it.

Perhaps I love it most for the bedtime routine.  There is the usual going to bed ritual, including the obligatory goodnights.  The rabbit child (for it is not a human child living in that room with kittens and mice--something I never noticed in my youth!) delays sleep by wishing goodnight to everything in the room, even, in a last sleepy effort to delay the inevitable, "goodnight nobody!" which was always my favorite line when I was a child.  (In fact, the concept of a lapine nobody reappears with gleeful charm in the character of A. A. Milne's Rabbit, as he attempts to fool visitors by pretending to be nobody at home.)  Now, the occasional rhyme gallops excitedly, making one think that there might be a reprieve from the inevitable sleep, but, alas, the old lady always whispers, "Hush."  Then, even the world quietens.

The room in the book resembles, in my mind, the room we stayed in when we visited my grandparents' house, though that room was neither great nor green.  When I was a child, the idea of a bedroom with a phone was unusual, but my grandparents had a phone in that spare room, and we children thought that was a marvel, playing with the dial, receiver in cradle, for hours.  There we had no fireplace, and no kitten; balloons were reserved for special occasions.  We had mittens, of course, and they were dried on racks like the one in the book.  If we had a mouse, it was usually dead in a trap.  The was a doll house, and a rocking chair, and my grandmother was always whispering Hush!  At night, that room became very, very dark.

I suppose, then, that my affection for the book may be as unique as it is personal.  And perhaps, readers of my age, with similar memories and taste, might purchase the book for young mothers, who, confused by the abundant accolades for Goodnight Moon might wonder, upon a first reading, "what's so great about this book?" and turn instead to the latest Elmo pablum.  But I hope not, for, as I recall, a bowl full of mush is so much more substantial.


Jennifer Gregory Miller said...

Lovely, MacBeth. I just love this book, and the others illustrated by Clement Hurd. The verses by Margaret Wise Brown don't always flow -- I'm glad someone else agrees with me there.

The illustrations, matched with the delay and long process of going to the sleep are just lovely. We always look for the little mouse on each page, watch as it gets darker and darker each page. I also observe that the time changes on the clock for each page... It's been a while, but I think the process is supposed to be an hour or 2 hours?

Anyway, it's a dear book, second only to Runaway Bunny.

Gae said...

Dear MacBeth,
This is one of our favourites for the baby. It really is a sleepy, not very interesting story that just allows the voice to carry that sleepy message

Anonymous said...

I think we must also remember that miserable commonplace vocabulary isn't so miserable or commonplace to a one or two year old. GM is all about the socks, the cow and bears, the comb, the stars, and of course the goodnight. For that child, what is better than word that speak of their life, related illustrations, and a sweet message?

MacBeth Derham said...

Absolutely right, Anon. Vocab is in the ear of the listener. In this case, it suits the book.

Nicole said...

It's great for reading while rocking a little one to sleep. We had to read and rock our now toddler to sleep from 6-12 months and carry him upstairs mostly asleep.

I heard Susan Sarandon read it once and her voice went from normal to that hushed mommy whisper by the end of the book.

Now that the he's older he likes to point out what he recognizes and it's short enough to keep the attention span of a very busy 22 month.

OK, no real point to this ramble other than that I'm a 28 year old mom raised on pretty commercial books and I love reading it to little guy.

Melanie B said...

I'm reading this to the third toddler now and I'm still not tired of it. That says a lot. There are so many books I'm heartily sick of.

I think what I love about the text Goodnight Moon is that it is that it is such very basic poetry in the form of a catalog of things. Ever since I had an English professor explain the poetry in the catalog of ships from Homer's Iliad, I've been in love with poetry that is lists. The litany of objects really is the child's world. How many times have I gone over a similar litany with a child learning to name the things in his world? Nose, eyes, mouth, ears; cup, spoon, fork, plate, bowl; door, window, wall, floor; cow, sheep, horse, chicken. Lists are pedestrian I suppose but to the child just learning that words signify objects, those lists are magic. The baby loves it because it's the security he longs for, the concrete and familiar made identifiable. The older toddler loves the rhymes, she's fascinated with language.

And I love the illustrations, the darkening of the room, the rising of the moon. The way you see the same scene over and over but a little different each time.

Oh and I love the little nods to Hurd's other works like the picture of the mother and baby bunny from The Runaway Bunny.

MacBeth Derham said...

Hey Melanie...I'm guessing from the wildly inaccurate Feedjit visitor locator that you live very close to the Great Green Room of my childhood, in Hingham Mass.
Thanks for your insight. The litany aspect is a great one in the great poems, in Homer, as you point out, and in Milton and others.

Re: Hurd--I read recently that on the dustjacket of the latest edition of the hardcover book removes the cigarette from his hand, as he stands in a classic pose, but retains the two fingered gesture. Too bad. Eliminating the sometimes gritty reality from the view of children only makes them poorer. I guess toddlers who see a smoking illustrator will emulate him...

MacBeth Derham said...

Should have proofread the above before hitting post. My, am I incoherent this eve?!

Melanie B said...


We're in Holbrook, about 20 minutes from Hingham, which in Mass is virtually right next door. We go to the farmer's market in Hingham all the time in the summer. It's right on the water and the kids love it. And our favorite working farm, Weir River Farm, is in Hingham too. They have an open barnyard on Staurdays in the summer where the kids can visit with all the animals. And World's End, one of the prettiest spots in Massachusetts! Hingham is beautiful town that I'd love to live in.

We actually have the board book edition of Goodnight Moon, so no photos of Hurd, cigarette or no. I agree about sanitizing the cover though.

GretchenJoanna said...

What a satisfying review...almost better than reading the book. I haven't had anyone to read it to for a few years now! I wonder if I liked it so much at first discovery because the series of "Good-nights" was reminiscent of my own childhood prayers taught by my mother, with a series of "God bless Grandma, and Grandpa, and Aunt Margaret,and Spot, God bless Daddy and Sister and ____" on and on pretty much as long as we wanted.