Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What Is The Magic Of 'Goodnight Moon'? By Pippa Goodhart


 
Goodnightmoon.jpg
 

            There are some picture books which just work. Children ask for them to be read, and they look at them by themselves, over and over again, and it isn’t always obvious exactly what the attraction of those books is.  Sometimes it’s a personal attachment in one child to a particular book, but sometimes the appeal appears to be universal.  One picture book which has worked for generations of children throughout the world is ‘Goodnight Moon’. 

But why does it work so well?

            American teacher Margaret Wise Brown, author of over a hundred books, wrote the simple text in this book which will be familiar to lots of you –

‘In the great green room

There was a telephone

And a red balloon

And a picture of –

(turn the page)

The cow jumping over the moon’ etc.

Clement Hurd created the rather crude repetitive pictures in primary colours of the odd room with a burning fire, a rabbit lady knitting in her rocking chair, the kittens and mittens, the telephone, the bowl full of mush, the comb and the bowl of much.  The book was published in 1947 and has sold over twelve million copies in at least fourteen different languages in the sixty-six years since. 

            I used the book with my own children, and there truly isn’t a better one for winding a small child down to sleepiness.  The text is rhythmic and rhyming and repetitive.  Those ‘three ‘r’s’ are well known ingredients for a pleasing read out loud for young children, of course.  But here the rhythm and rhyme and repetition seem to be a substitute for story rather than a treatment of it.  There simply is no plot; no story.  This is just one small rabbit’s goodnight ritual.  It is dull dull dull.  Can you imagine a present day publisher accepting a page that is entirely blank of illustration, accompanied by the text ‘Goodnight nobody’?!    There is some small interest in spotting where the mouse and named objects are, but I think that it is the overall lack  of story stimulus that makes the book so successfully soporific. 

            And yet this book has been chosen by polls of teachers as one of their top hundred children’s books of all time.  Why would a teacher use a book that so clearly sends children to sleep?  Is there some other quality, beyond the hypnotic sleepifying one, that I am missing?  And why had I never before heard of the ‘companion’ book, ‘My World’, published by the same pair a couple of years after ‘Goodnight Moon’ proved such an instant hit?  Why isn’t that book as famous as the first one? 

Is there some magic ingredient in ‘Goodnight Moon’ which I should be aiming to emulate in my own books?  Any suggestions welcome!

            Footnote:  There’s an extraordinary true story attached to the fictional story of ‘Goodnight Moon’.  Margaret Wise Brown, dying unexpectedly of an embolism aged only forty-two, bequeathed the royalties from ‘Goodnight Moon’ to her nine year old neighbour, Albert Clarke.  To read what happened then to both the book and the boy, read http://www.joshuaprager.com/articles/runaway-money/

 

18 comments:

  1. When I was a child, the Margaret Wise Brown book that captured my delight was 'Pussy Willow'. A small illustrated story book (now 'decorated' with pen squiggles) from Golden Pleasure Books. A kitten called Pussy Willow spends the year searching for the pussy willow, which is right back where he first saw it.

    I suppose it's another of her books that appears unprepossessing, but has something about it that appeals. But why?

    I looked up the link on the strange and sad life of Albert Clarke, and 'Pussy Willow' was his favourite too.

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  2. I don't know any of her other books, but must look them up. Funny that you too recognise their appeal but can't put a finger on what that appeal is!

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  3. Good question, Pippa. I think it's something to do with infusing a simple, reassuring and recognisable cute rabbity bedtime ritual with love. And that's conveyed by the reader as well as the writer.

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    1. Yes, there IS love implied, I suppose, and yet it is never actually mentioned. I think it's also a sort of security blanket of a story; utterly safe and predictable.

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  4. I have often asked this same question. And not quite sure its a "cute rabbity bedtime ritual"...I find the little old lady whispering hush kinda creepy. :)

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    1. As I child I didn't like that 'bowl full of mush'! It bothered me that the rabbit was going to sleep without having eaten it. Was the 'old lady' rabbit going to notice that it wasn't eaten, and then he'd have to eat it cold next day? And, no, I didn't come from a cruel background! But it was once where food wasn't 'wasted'. And we were made to finish school dinners in a way that came to haunt me.

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  5. I could never understand why this book was so revered. It just doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid. Is American taste so different? Is it because previous generations there grew up on it?

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    1. I think there's certainly a power in books which parents have loved as children, and now present to their own kids. And there were fewer books to choose from back in the 'good old days'. But I'd not met this book as a child, was highly dubious about it working with my own children when a kind person gave it to them, and yet it did..... Most mysterious.

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  6. I must look this one up. I've never heard of it! I wonder how it bypassed my consciousness when it is obviously so well known and revered. Possibly it is because it is American. . .
    As for the reasons why some things 'just work' and others don't, well, that's pretty much unknowable I think. We can produce well thought out theories, or we can grope towards them in the full glow of hindsight but they evade us every time ;-) Me anyway.

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    1. Perhaps it's a good thing that not everything can be explained and analysed with logic? It gives hope that anything just might have that magic!

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  7. To my mind, it's because she could tap into the consciousness of a child so well. We've all forgotten the logic and illogic of childhood to some degree, but she knew what it was about. Better than most, anyway. I get chills sometimes when I reach that "Goodnight nobody" page, because who but a child would think of saying goodnight to no one? Yet she was able to capture that wonderful illogic in her writing.

    By the way, there's a great imaginary interview with her in the Horn Book archives that contains this beautiful quote:

    "A child’s own story is a dream, but a good story is a dream that is true for more than one child. Once in a great while a five-year-old retains his awareness, and then he becomes a painter, a writer, or a poet."

    http://archive.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2010/may10_marcus.asp

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    1. Wow, I really like the way you said this. Thanks!

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  8. thank you for that interesting link. I think that you are spot on in remembering the illogicality (or often an innocent sort of logic) that is a part of childhood.

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  9. You bring up a great question, and I have been thinking about it on and off over the weekend. I don't find the book illogical at all, but I really nod my head in agreement over your, "It gives hope that anything just might have that magic!" To me, it is the spirit of anything that gives it that magic...like, sometimes I've wondered why I really like my young daughter's Raffi songs. I mean, he would be the first to say that he doesn't have the best and strongest, most melodic voice in the world. But, when other artists sing the same songs or re-record his original lyrics, they are just not as enjoyable to me. Maybe some would call it heart, I think of it as the spirit of anything I enjoy or not. But I also like what the review said about the book (listed here in the comments). I hope you don't mind, but I linked this great post to my own blog to show my empathy to readers who may not be as enthusiastic as me to my frequent reference of Goodnight Moon. Sarah of www.reverieofapicturebook.com Looking forward to your next post, AND BOOK of course!

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    1. A belated reply to say that of course I'm delighted your linking my post to your blog, thank you! I've been away at the Edinburgh Book Festival, seeing so many wonderful books my head is reeling .... and yet the simplicity and slight magic of Goodnight Moon can compete with them all!

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  10. It's because the book is more than a book - it hits a developmental stage better than any children's book ever written. The child learns to go to sleep on his/her own, which is a developmental stage. I often think the best books for very young children touch on these stages. As with Margaret Wise Brown's other classic, THE RUNAWAY BUNNY, which shows that it's ok to go out adventuring because your mother will always be there to look after you.

    It's because of the parent-child bond which is so reinforced by reading it, usually nightly. The ritual expresses this so completely, above and beyond the content of the book itself. And even though the parent never wants to hear those words again after a certain point!

    It's because of the simplicity of the text and the repetition, and the iconic drawings, all of which create a seamless whole. You can't imagine one without the other.

    It's because of the bunnies - Margaret was very big on bunnies. In the original conception, the child was a little boy. Bunnies are just so much better...anyone of any race, culture or sex can identify.

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    1. I so agree on that bunnies point about children being able to identify more easily with animals than with a child who is a different sort of child from themselves. And, yes, going to bed might be routine for us adults, but can be something big and new for children. I remember one of my daughters being SO excited about moving from a cot into a bed!

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  11. Fascinating discussion, Pippa! I think the comment above hits it on the head - It's the universal ritual, shared with a parent. It doesn't matter that there is no specific story - Sadly something that publishers would reject these days. I think they are wrong.

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