There was a telephone
And a red balloon
. . .
Goodnight noises everywhere.
from Goodnight Moon
written by Margaret Wise Brown
pictures by Clement Hurd
Can you still imagine Clement Hurd’s pictures of the great green room? You probably remember the old lady sitting on her rocking chair next to a table holding a telephone and a bowl full of mush. And the picture of the cow jumping over the moon in its scalloped frame. And the little mouse that appears on each page. What makes this simple story so incredibly memorable?
In my blog celebrating 20 years of Harry Potter (7/31/2018), I made a list to define a literary classic. As I said then, I based the list on my training and experience as a children’s librarian, and my pleasure in reading to young children, (my own and other people’s), not-so-young-children, and reading to myself. Yes, I read children’s books. Really, I mostly read children’s books.
Here’s what I came up with then, and I think it still holds true.
- Re-readablility: How many times can you read the same book and enjoy it? Can you find new details that add to your understanding or your child’s? Is it still fun to read and listen to?
- Characterization: Are the characters real? Do they do real things and think real thoughts? Can both you and your child identify with them?
- Philosophical: Does the book help you and your child understand what it means to be human? Life lessons in classic literature are hidden. They’re subtle. Are you still thinking and talking about the book and character(s) even after you finish reading it?
- Emotional: Is the ending satisfying? Surprising, but tied up? Leave you feeling good? Even the sad ones, like Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows?
- Sturdy: Is it able to stand the test of time?
Questions without answers abound. Who will eat that presumably cold bowl of mush. Why say goodnight to nobody? Where is the old lady at the end of the story? These questions and others keep the story interesting time after time, for the children and their grown-up readers.
Only one character, the narrator, describes her surroundings. And unless you count the old lady or the kittens or the little mouse, which I don’t, we watch her perform her bedtime ritual alone, saying goodnight to everything important to her. Even both moons, the real one outside her window and the one drawn in the picture of the cow jumping over it, and even that bowl of mush. In 1947, it was a ground-breaking move to write of the mundane in a children’s book.
We see life lessons in Goodnight Moon. Children need routine and curiosity, relationships both real and fantastical, a firm grounding in their real surroundings and the freedom to imagine.
Goodnight Moon is tied up at the end with a surprise. We, as readers and listeners, expect the whole process of bedtime rituals to end with a parent’s kiss on sleepy eyelids. What we have is just as satisfying, but just a little unexpected. After saying goodnight to the outside world, we return inside to those familiar nighttime noises.
My last criterion, can the book withstand the test of time? Well at 75 years and counting, I vote yes.
People buy about 800,000 copies of Goodnight Moon every year. This includes gifts for new babies, personal purchases, and library copies. By 2017, the latest information I could find, an estimated 48 million copies have been sold. You can find copies published in French, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Catalan, Hebrew, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Korean, Hmong, German, and Armenian (both the Eastern and Western dialects).
Even though the actual 75th anniversary of Goodnight Moon will not be until September 3, 2022, I decided to give the book and Margaret Wise Brown a little extra love and celebrate early.
So much changes in our fraught world. Sea-levels are rising and extreme weather events continue to wreak havoc on our Earth’s resources, plant, and animal life including our own. Wild fires rage. Laws change to promote the minority’s will. And all any of us can try to control or even influence (people, things, and ideas) are those nearest and dearest to us.
Just like Goodnight Moon’s narrator, we need to identify those things most precious to us, but unlike her, instead of saying goodnight, let’s fight back, with our words and our actions.
Be curious! (and courageous)