Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon and there were three little bears sitting on chairs and two little kittens and a pair of mittens and a little toyhouse and a young mouse and a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush and a quiet old lady who was whispering hush . . .

Sound familiar? Goodnight Moon is one of the most successful children’s books of the twentieth century and has been in print since 1947. I don’t remember it from my own childhood but I have been reading it every night to my daughter since she received it as a Christmas present. It is THE book. The final book we read before bed because it has the effect of making my daughter yawn with increasing frequency until her eyes can barely stay open.

Goodnight Moon is the story of a passive little rabbit, who allows himself to be put to bed without much of a battle, although at one point – in an uncharacteristic moment of action – the rabbit does turn to look at the wall behind him. And let’s remember that the quiet old lady finds it necessary to whisper “hush”, so the little rabbit might well be doing something to get on her nerves.

On first glance the rabbit’s bedroom appears to stay the same, but closer inspection reveals that over the course of the book the light fades, the hands on the clocks move from 7:00pm to 8:10pm, some mush gets eaten and the mouse is implicated, the red balloon comes and goes, the moon rises in the window, and the kittens and the mouse move from place to place. Most interestingly, at the start of the book the quiet old lady’s rocking chair is empty except for knitting, then she first appears in a black and white plate, then colour, then at the end of the book she is no longer present and sleeping kittens fill her place. But still, it’s not what you’d call an action blockbuster.

The best thing about the book is the mouse. Each full colour plate features a tiny white mouse who is seen in a different place each time, and he’s remarkably difficult to spot, especially because of the fading light of the nursery.

Another point to note is that the book has a strange hypnotic effect on the reader, and the very act of reading it feels like winding down for sleep. The diction and syntax do something to the brain which in turn has an effect on the body, with the reader’s breathing becoming a little slower and deeper, and tension in the body seeming to drain away. Even more odd is the effect the text has on the voice. The first page starts off quite jauntily and I launch into the story with a sort of plummy boom to my voice but gradually my voice becomes lower and quieter until the final page is recited in a whisper. Having conferred with other parents, I’m not alone in experiencing this bizarre voice-altering effect.

Apart from its incredible soporific effect, for which countless parents will remain forever grateful, what is the appeal of Goodnight Moon for children? Because some readers (*cough*) find the alternating colour and monochrome plates showing a young rabbit being put to bed . . . well . . .  a bit creepy. The illustrations are very detailed but the colours and composition are (to my adult eyes) quite unsettling. Children, however, appear to love it. Naturally they identify with the little rabbit sitting in his bed within a seemingly huge room full of familiar objects, and many children will take comfort from the ritual of bidding these familiar items goodnight. It’s sweet.

It’s also a bit weird. Because something is certainly amiss in the world of Goodnight Moon. The baby rabbit is a lonesome protagonist. Positioned on his own on the far right hand side, he is cut off from the objects in his room and he seems very apart, distanced even from the old lady and his own toys. The baby rabbit doesn’t get out of his bed. The baby rabbit just sits there and the old lady sits there watching him. Even Waiting for Godot had more action. Is Goodnight Moon actually a classic work of existentialist literature?

There is also the matter of the somewhat startling lines:

Goodnight nobody

Goodnight mush

Apart from the annoying fact that my toddler has started referring to my cooking as “mush”, what actually is mush? Who eats it? Do rabbits eat mush? Or is the mush representative of something? More on this later.

And what is one supposed to make of the eerie “goodnight nobody”? What does it mean? Is there a ghost present? Ah yes: death. Is Goodnight Moon symbolic of a child coming to terms with the concept of death? The night is falling and everything is wished goodnight. Are we talking the ultimate goodnight? Could the ghost – metaphoric or literal – be the “quiet old lady whispering hush” . . . ? Maybe that’s why rabbit and old lady are not really interacting? There are no bedtime cuddles, kisses or songs. Just one instance of “hush”. Deadness and/or ghostiness could explain 1) the lack of interaction between junior and senior rabbits, 2) the old lady’s quietness, 3) her absence at the start of the book and subsequent emergence through a black and white plate, and 4) the fact that the old lady is no longer present at the end of the book. This theory might also explains the “hush”; meant not as a reproof but as a word of comfort to soothe a crying child.

Or perhaps the old lady is indeed alive (or as alive as one can be in a 65-year-old illustration), but the rabbit is becoming aware of his own rabbitty mortality, understanding that one day he will outgrow all of the objects in his bedroom, see the demise of the mouse and the kittens – though a cat would generally live 3x longer than a rabbit, if we’re going to be pedantic about it – and has been hit with the realisation that one day he will watch his last moonrise, and that he will, eventually . . . turn to mush.

Or perhaps I’ve just read Goodnight Moon a few too many times.

In any case, if you’ve never read Goodnight Moon and this review has made you at all curious, then do check it out. No other children’s book is quite like it.

P.S For an extra bit of trivia, certain readers will be amused to note that a doctored photo of the book’s illustrator Clement Hurd was included in the 60th anniversary republication of Goodnight Moon. In the famous image of Hurd he held a cigarette between his fingers and the publishers decided that this set a bad example to children and so the cigarette was airbrushed away, leaving an interesting portrait of a man extending his hand to hold nothing. Some readers are still waiting for the red balloon to be removed from the illustrations (the string is a strangulation hazard) and the bedroom’s fireplace to be bricked up (no fire guard or smoke detector) and the hygienic extermination of the mouse.

Macmillan Children’s Books. Pictures by Clement Hurd. 34 pages. Board book. ISBN-13: 978-0230748606. Costs around £4.

Lisa has just released a gripping teen novel, SNAKE BEACH, which is available in e-book form here and here.

11 comments on “Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

  1. kirstyjane
    April 4, 2012

    I loved this, comrade L! I am now going to have to read Goodnight Moon just to get the full benefit of your review 🙂

  2. Jackie
    April 4, 2012

    I never read this book when I was little(we didn’t do bedtime stories), so I’m unfamiliar with everything but the very basics. Was your review an eye opener! So many different angles to contemplate it.
    Perhaps the “nobody” harks back to the Emily Dickenson poem?
    And mush is cooked cornmeal, eaten hot with milk & sugar or cold & congealed, fried with syrup. We ate it a lot when I was little & it was a great favorite of my stepfather. It’s an Irish dish for peasants, which is why we had it so often.
    I really need to look for this book at the library. I never realized it was so weird!

  3. Hilary
    April 4, 2012

    What a superb review of an extraordinary book! I loved it, Lisa. Wondering guiltily why I’ve never heard of it before. Certainly, I never knew it in my childhood, and I don’t remember coming across it when I worked in libraries, either. I’ve had my eyes closed it would seem.

    I love the idea that it’s so quirky and odd and original, and I guess at the time it was written/drawn its author didn’t feel constrained to make it anything other than her imagination dictated. I love the description of the narcoleptic effect it has – sounds like a remedy for all ages. That, alongside its distinctly mad elements makes it so intriguing.

    Best laugh? The airbrushed hand of the illustrator, no longer flourishing a gasper in an elegant fashion. Honestly! I ask you ….

  4. cherylmahoney
    April 5, 2012

    I love Goodnight Moon…it really does have a hypnotic, sleep-inducing quality to it! And I love the way the pages get gradually darker and darker, until the moonlit window and the fire seem to glow in the dark room…

  5. Lisa
    April 5, 2012

    Thanks for these comments. It is a strange little book, but also magnificent in its strangeness. It’s definitely worth reading if you’re ever having trouble sleeping! Hope you get to read a copy, comrades!

    As cherylmahoney says “the pages get gradually darker and darker, until the moonlit window and the fire seem to glow in the dark room…” That is exactly it. Even the light in the little toyhouse gets brighter. It’s soothing and yet . . .yep . . . mad.

    I wish I had been familiar with this book as a child. I wonder if I’d have been one of its fans, or one of the children who found it disturbing enough to feature in their nightmares.

    Jackie, your comment is so illuminating. Mush sounds gorgeous! Much tastier than its name would suggest. No wonder the mouse scoffed it. And I really like your idea about the Emily Dickenson poem. That would make sense. Hard to imagine that you didn’t have bedtime stories, Jackie, given that you grew up to be such an avid reader. I don’t think I know anybody who reads as much as you do!

    Hilary, the airbrushed cigarette made the New York Times! http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/17/books/17moon.html and the article quotes Clement’s son, Thacher:

    But in an interview, Thacher Hurd said he had originally balked at the idea. After several discussions, “I reluctantly allowed them to do it,” he said. Now, the retouched picture, with his father standing with his right arm crooked in front of him, two fingers extended with nothing but air between them, “looks slightly absurd to me,” he added.

    Yes, quite.

  6. Moira
    April 5, 2012

    Oo-er missis ,,, Whoever would have thought that a review of a teeny-tiny children’s book could have creeped me out so much?

    It certaily sounds a little strange … and I’m plainly going to have to fork out the £4.00 to take a look for myself …

  7. Lisa
    April 5, 2012

    I was thinking how much you’d be tickled by this book, Moira. Hope you get the chance to read it. Insomnia will be a thing of the past… (nightmares, not necessarily.)

  8. Lisa
    April 5, 2012

    Gosh, I’ve just found another review of Goodnight Moon on Bookgasm, and it is utterly brilliant.

    http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/horror/goodnight-moon/

  9. Airalin Bowman
    March 30, 2013

    You are so wrong. In no way is this anything accurate. I will endeavour to explain when I do not have an actual pair of kittens that need my immediate attention. That is to the reviewer, not the commentators to be clear. I will write one myself, if that is what it takes to explain anything any child can see. Cat in need, later for now

  10. asavarisingh1980
    August 1, 2014

    Brilliant! I always get goosebumps when I read it to my baby and you’ve expressed why. Goodnight nobody, goodnight noises everywhere, hello eternal sleep… While some sort of parallel universe plays out in the toyhouse

  11. Pingback: Goodnight Moon | The Literary Snarker

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This entry was posted on April 4, 2012 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: children's, Uncategorized.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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