I’ve memorized Goodnight Moon twice in my life. First, as a kid when my parents would read it to me every night before bed, and now as a father who reads it to his son every night before bed. Margaret Wise Brown’s words and Clement Hurd’s images are iconic. Just the phrase “In the great green room” prompts a conditioned response in me. My eyelids get heavy. I feel comforted. My chest swells thinking of my son reciting the words. I’ve read Goodnight Moon hundreds of times, and will no doubt read it hundreds more.
After those countless proofreads, I can definitively say that it should have gone through another round or two of revisions.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s far and away my favorite children’s book. You can keep your wild things, your hungry caterpillars, your little blue trucks and your willy nilly silly old bears. I’ll take Goodnight Moon.
Yet the book is filled with idiosyncrasies and odd choices that become impossible to ignore after the hundredth read. For starters, “goodnight” as one word is not, in fact, a word. Somebody should have caught that. On the first page, we’re introduced to the great green room and its telephone and red balloon. The illustration shows what is clearly a child’s room, evidenced by the aforementioned red balloon, as well as a little toy house. Why would a child, rabbit or otherwise, have a telephone on their nightstand?
And why is the other rabbit in the rocking chair referred to as the “old lady?” What exactly is her relation to the slumbering bunny? Perhaps more disturbingly, her chair is empty when first shown in the book. Then she suddenly appears, sewing and hypnotizing the two little kittens. By the end of the book, she’s vanished again with the kittens sleeping in her place.
There are other visual peculiarities. Over the course of the book, the moon rises in the night sky, suggesting that several hours have passed during the recitation of this nightly poem. The socks and mittens are first shown on a single rack. Later, we bid goodnight to a smaller rack with only mittens in a black and white illustration. On the next page, the larger rack with socks and mittens returns in the color picture of the room. This suggests the black and white illustrations are not literal depictions of these objects, but rather someone’s subconscious interpretation of them — perhaps the young bunny drifting off to sleep, or the enigmatic quiet old lady.
Or it shows Brown and Hurd should have had a few more editorial meetings in the early stages of their collaboration.
The text itself contains further obfuscations. We’re introduced to a telephone, which never gets a goodnight, yet a light and clocks are both told goodnight with no prior mentions. It’s the kind of oversight that’s common as revisions are made to one part of a text or another — something another set of eyes might have helped fix. As a kid, I loved that line “goodnight nobody, goodnight mush.” Now I wonder if it was added because a blank page accidentally made it past the final proof.
The closing pages include a downright metaphysical twist as we leave the confines of the great green room and say goodnight to stars, air, and noises everywhere. It’s a powerful choice with profound narrative implications, but it comes from out of left field. There’s no foreshadowing, no hint that the storyteller’s influence or ambitions extend to the depths of the universe and noises eternal.
New York Public Library librarian Anne Carroll Moore famously disliked Goodnight Moon and kept it off of library bookshelves for 25 years. Like a stereotypical 1950s librarian, she didn’t care for Brown’s lyrical, childlike writing style. Of course, it’s that very style that gives Goodnight Moon its staying power. It captures the way a child thinks, especially right before bedtime. Its cadence and tone have a calming effect that contrasts a vast outside world filled with moons, stars and noises with the quiet familiarity of a bedtime routine and a bowl full of mush.
My son has started to move on from Goodnight Moon to the chaotic and nonsensical worlds of Sam I Am and The Cat in the Hat. But I expect to return to the great green room one day — maybe this time with a red pen in addition to that red balloon.
Alexander Irwin is a father, writer, and editor living in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.