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/