Why the unconventional bedtime tale Goodnight Moon endures 75 years on
Though it's now a classic, Margaret Wise Brown's clever, boldly illustrated book was no overnight success
Goodnight Moon was a sleeper hit.
Margaret Wise Brown's now-classic picture book about a bunny saying goodnight to everything it sees — bears in chairs, a red balloon, the bowl of mush and, of course, the moon — was slow to find a home on bedside tables when it was published in September 1947.
With its simple language, lulling rhythm and boldly coloured illustrations of the great green room by Clement Hurd, it was a departure from the moralistic fairy tales and fantasies en vogue at the time.
"It does feel like a kind of incantation," said Lissa Paul, director of the PhD program in interdisciplinary humanities at Brock University.
"One of the things that makes it such a perennially beautiful book is that the rhythms and cadences of bedtime are perfectly caught in it."
Despite the fact that Goodnight Moon has sold more than 40 million copies and continues to top best-seller lists, it was a new concept for children's literature when it was first published 75 years ago.
"I think deep down [Brown] understood that what she was doing was significant and that she was reaching young children in a way that had probably never happened before in books," said Leonard Marcus, author of the biography Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.
"At the same time, she was part of her time and children's books were viewed as second rate in terms of artistic achievement in general, and the books for babies were at the low, low end of that spectrum."
Understanding children's needs
Brown was a poet by "temperament," according to Marcus, and had ambitions to write for the New Yorker. She struggled, however, to write for adults, the biographer said.
When she landed at what is now known as the Bank Street College of Education by chance, she found her niche, he told The Sunday Magazine.
Bank Street taught progressive approaches to educating children and favoured the idea that books had a place in the very beginning of children's lives.
There, Marcus said she wrote stories for students in the nursery school, gathering feedback from the children themselves. It was their worldview and desires that influenced the stories she told.
The writer once said that children were looking for "a few gorgeous big grownup words to bite on," wrote Anna Holmes in the New Yorker.
"Although she was bringing the Bank Street pieces into her understanding of children and childhood, she was also bringing in her own upbringing and love of literature," said Paul.
In Goodnight Moon, Brown eschewed the fantastical worlds of then-contemporary children's literature and instead embraced the usual elements of a young person's world (though her defining work undoubtedly includes some quirky elements), experts said.
"Part of what made her work special was the emotional truthfulness of it," said Marcus.
Reflecting cultural views
Despite its popularity among children, Goodnight Moon was seen as a poor choice for kids.
Anne Carroll Moore, an influential librarian who headed the children's department at the New York Public Library, withheld Goodnight Moon from its collection. A review by the library described it as "unbearably sentimental," and it wouldn't appear on shelves in the system until 1972.
"The library philosophy really was rooted in a sense of the importance of protecting children from the harsh realities of life," said Marcus.
Children's books often reflect cultural views of the time they're published, says Theresa Rogers, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia. They also tend to centre on innocence.
"These kinds of concepts about children play a pretty large role in what gets written for children," she said.
I still read it to my grandchildren, I read it to my kids — and it stands the test of time.- Theresa Rogers, professor of education
But just as there are prevailing views, there are also competing ones, says Rogers.
Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, a "deeply psychological book" that acknowledged the fears and trepidations of children, was similarly controversial when it was released in 1963.
While libraries didn't stock Goodnight Moon in its early days, it gained popularity when two psychologists known for their syndicated advice column praised the book in the early 1950s. The authors wrote that "it seems almost unlawful that you can hypnotize a child off to sleep as easily as you can by reading this small classic," the Wall Street Journal reported.
"It was the beginning of a grassroots movement in support of that book, which essentially went over the heads of the librarians who were the self-appointed experts and arbiters of the time," said Marcus.
The New York Public Library acknowledged in a 2020 article that had it not been for the librarian's decision to keep Goodnight Moon off the shelves, it would have likely been the library's most borrowed book.
Bedtime staple to this day
Brown died in 1952 at the age of 42. Before her death, she had written notes about a potential Broadway musical that Marcus believes she would have eventually written.
Several of her manuscripts were also posthumously published.
Over seven decades since the groundbreaking Goodnight Moon was released, experts and readers alike say that Brown's work endures.
Goodnight Moon stands as an example of blending literature with what children need, says Paul, noting that many of today's children's books, such as levelled readers, are more focused on teaching the structure of language and literacy but are written in an unnatural way.
"All of the kinds of words that people don't use about literacy, education, are words that are in Margaret Wise Brown and in the feeling generated in Margaret Wise Brown — ideas of love, desire, observation, care, attending to the way that language actually communicates that there's something you love and want to share with someone else," she said.
Even in a world where seemingly limitless books exist, Goodnight Moon remains a bedtime staple.
"It's often given as a book to read to kids, still, along with the much more clever, sophisticated, postmodern, interactive range of books and vast number of topics that are available now," said Rogers.
"I still read it to my grandchildren, I read it to my kids — and it stands the test of time."
Interview with Leonard Marcus produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.