Monday, April 11, 2011

Goodnight Moon: The Nauseating Landscape of Childhood Anxiety

Hey.  I'm doing a thing.  I think this is one of those memes that everybody on the internets is talking about all the time, but I'm not quite sure what a meme is.  But I think this is one.  Anyway, my friend Nicole from Ninja Mom asked me to play this monthly meme that she invented called "Character Assassination Carousel," in which you have fun bashing, snarking, or otherwise mocking a beloved children's classic of your choice.  Nicole just started this thing a few months ago, and already three super-cool people have participated: Nicole herself, Kristine from Wait in the Van, and most recently Allison of Motherhood, WTF? Stay tuned in May, when dbs of Think.Stew will be the next assassin.  And for god's sake, go check out Nicole's excellent blog, Ninja Mom!


Goodnight Moon: The Nauseating Landscape of Childhood Anxiety

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Clement Hurd, is probably the best known book in the entire night-night genre.  Recent studies have shown that seventy-three percent of households worldwide own a copy: more families share this book at bedtime than have access to clean drinking water.  Its cultural significance cannot be overstated.  For instance, in virtually every movie made since 1947 in which parents read bedtime stories to their children, either Goodnight Moon is shown onscreen, or alluded to in the dialogue.  Another testament to its influence is historians' unanimous agreement that the pioneers of space exploration were motivated primarily by their exposure to this book directly before dreaming of hurtling beyond the Earth's atmosphere.  

The book's popularity endures today, even amid competition from such sexy titles as Goodnight, Gorilla; Goodnight Sh'ma; Goodnight, Thumper; The Goodnight Train; and Goodnight Warrior: God's Mighty Warrior Bedtime Bible Stories, Devotions, & Prayers.  

So, what is it that fascinates us about this book to such an extent that it remains the bestselling of its type more than sixty years after publication?  Is it even fascination that we feel for it?  Could it be that, as with Humpty Dumpty, we have no idea what the fuck it means or why anyone would enjoy it, but we fear that to withhold it from our children is to deny them a possibly crucial element of our cultural literacy?

I contend that in addition to the cultural pressure to make Goodnight Moon a part of our tucking-in routine, there is a discomfiting allure to this simple poem and its alternating luridly colored and starkly monochromatic illustrations that resonates with children and compels their parents to return to it night after night, child after child, and generation after generation.  Goodnight Moon is to parents what Blue Velvet is to cinema buffs.

And as in the films of David Lynch, Goodnight Moon has a patina of realism that makes it more disturbing and in some ways more compelling than the completely surreal, fantastic, or absurd representations in the works of Dali, Spielberg, and Seuss.  There are no flights of fancy, outrageous gestures, plot twists, or grotesque creatures to be found in this subdued bit of subversion.  The text simply describes the elements of a sleepy-time setting, and then bids goodnight to most of the items described.  Meanwhile the illustrations pan with Jarmuschian languor from one side to the other of the room in which all the nearly imperceptible action takes place, shifting to black-and-white closeups every third and fourth page.

In terms of the text, most of the non-sequiturs can be interpreted as a function of a child's perspective as she says (or perhaps just thinks) "goodnight" to everything she sees or conjures in her mind's eye--something most parents have witnessed with their own youngsters.  And even though the tantalizingly succinct line "Goodnight mush" lends itself to much speculation as to its deeper meaning, would-be literary codebreakers are mistaking a simple dietary relic for the key to this sometimes puzzling work.

The truly disquieting line in the text is the one in which the reader is introduced to one of the only two anthropomorphic animal characters: "And a quiet old lady who was whispering "hush"."  This elderly lady-rabbit is not a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, or a nanny.  She's simply a watchful crone who stares the rabbit-child down from across the room while her knitting sits untouched in her lap.  It's unclear whether the old lady is friendly toward the young rabbit, but her narrowed eyes and constant whispering suggest that there are potentially unpleasant consequences if the child perseverates about the kittens, mittens, brush, and mush.

"Who am I?  Oh, don't you worry about that, little bunny.  Just know that I watch you every night while you sleep."

The artwork, however, is what makes opening "Goodnight Moon" an agreement to step into a universe related to ours only to the extent that it is populated by the trappings of our daily lives.  The arrangement of these mundane objects, however, is skewed enough to make us feel off-kilter, and the blocks of vivid primary colors almost vibrate despite the quiet setting.  The visual and psychic incongruity is more than a little nauseating.

Although the question of why rabbits would share a human (or quasi-human) home with cats, mice, and a tiger-skin rug is beyond the scope of my argument, it is worthwhile to consider an interpretation in which the  "great green room" is an actual rabbit's imagining of what a human dwelling might entail.

However, if we continue to entertain the notion that the narrative is from the rabbit-child's perspective, the setting certainly suggests that the child's world is fraught with anxiety and confusion.  The great green room is anything but cozy.  In fact, it is vast: an agoraphobic's nightmare in which the two human-ish characters are isolated by an oceanic area rug.

The room's ambiguous purpose and organization are jarring to the reader and, indeed, seem to intimidate the bunny to the point that it is confined to the safety of its bed.  As readers, our question is "Where are we?"  Is this a nursery, as the toys and nursery rhyme-based wall hangings would indicate?  Or, with its fireplace and two grand windows, some sort of parlor or drawing room?  It's unlikely that a child's room in the 1940s would have a telephone in it (not to mention a tiger-skin rug);  so is this the parents' room?  A studio apartment, perhaps?  With forest green walls and tomato red carpet?  It's no wonder at one point the bunny tucks its knees under its chin and seems to rock in a modified bunny-fetal position.

It's tempting to read Goodnight Moon as a comment upon the disorientation inherent in the new postwar prosperity in the United States.  But a broad interpretation, disentangled from its historical bonds, better explains the universal appeal of Brown and Hurd's greatest collaboration.  The juxtaposition of a chromatically jarring setting, childish ramblings, and incongruous visual details creates a vertiginous psychological landscape with sinister undertones.  As such, it resembles nothing so much as childhood itself.


But wait!  There's more.  Check out these other posts I've written about The Wheels on the Bus, Goodnight Gorilla, Animal Hide and Seek (With Flaps!), and The Very Busy Spider.   




  1. I'm a bit of a fun of "Good Night Moon". Of course I've read it countless times to the kiddos.

    I think it's primary draw is that countless reads allows the reader to catch ALL of the minor details.

    In particular the kids love to spot specific named objects on each page. My personal favorite is that active little mouse. (all over the place)

  2. I have always found the rabbit in the rocker to be creepy. You know how Stephen King takes little towns with regular people and flips them on their heads and makes everything have a sinister purpose, meaning, and kitchen knife?

    That's what I think about rocker bunny. A rabbit waiting to go wrong.

  3. I must admit when I first got this book the old lady rabbit was creepy, but somehow that book is a favorite of kids... Maybe its the simple language?, pictures?....Hey when your girls get older get 'Where The Wild Things Are" lol, or 'There's a Monster in my Closet'....

  4. I realise this is just a bit of fun,but it does lead me to a serious debating point.

    Do we over analyse everything?

    Sometimes a book is just a book,not a post,post modern zeitgeist with echoes of an apocalyptic writing style which immediately draws the reader to conclude that life is just an endless pursuit of humdrum goals and finally,despite a transmogrification of fleeting beauty,death itself.

    It's the Hungry bloody Caterpillar,just read it to the children at bed time and say night night.....


    Other than that,nice piece chief.

  5. But really, is any phrase more frightening and suggestive of our loneliness in this world, maybe this universe, as "Goodnight nobody"? Or, as you suggest, is "nobody" the embodiment of the "quiet old lady's" whispered bogeyman? And further, why do adults torture themselves with this mini-nightmare if not also as a punitive gesture for their kids: Sleep tight, or else.

    Bravo. Beta Dad! Rocked the CAC.

  6. As someone just finishing (in three weeks!) that English M.A. while dealing with two small children...BRAVO! Actually, the old lady does creep me out. Mostly the "Hush." I am sure you have seen this, but just in case:
    Now back to my well-word copy of Goodnight Moon.

  7. I'm pretty sure I'll never look at the book the same again...and I read it at least twice a night...awesome post...I've overlook so many little details..

  8. Jarmuschian langu0r pills from international sources on sale now! She will thank you clrkrumxbfzz.

  9. I always thought Goodnight Moon was designed to be completely uninteresting so kids could be conditioned to fall asleep just by seeing the cover. Maybe that only works on adults.

  10. @David--I do like that aspect of the book. It's packed with details, and when the kids get into it, it seems less weird.

    @Frank--Exactly! The old lady rabbit is Dolores Claiborne.

    @KBF--My kids love it too. There's no accounting for the tastes of children.

    @Jack--OK, I'll bite. No, we don't over-analyze everything. Some (most?) people hardly think about stuff at all. But this was meant to be an over-analysis just for laughs, as you mentioned. I think I'm simultaneously poking fun at literary types who see too much in everything, and encouraging people to think about what they read, see, hear a little bit more.

    @Nicole--I know. "Goodnight Nobody" sounds like a great title for a horror movie. Or a Metallica album.

    @Naps--Congrats on your impending graduation! Too bad you can never again read a trashy novel just for the fun of it. I've seen the title of that link, but haven't clicked on it. Will do so posthaste!

    @Susan--Sometimes coming to it from a different perspective makes it more fun!

    @Palinode--Piss off, spammer!!!

    @preschoolmovies--I don't know. My kids still get pretty psyched when they see that book.

  11. I actually read it to my kid in Hebrew, a surprisingly good translation.

    I read it for the first time about 5 years ago, when I worked in a bookstore. I thought it was the saddest book in the world. "Poor dead rabbit," were my actual thoughts.

    So you understand it took me a while to find the appeal of this book. I think it's in the rhythm. It's just relaxing to say these words. I actually found myself sitting on the deck with my boy one night before going to bed, and saying, "Good night, stars. Good night, clouds. Good night, deck..." -- My father was religious, and as a kid, I used to say the Shema prayer before going to sleep. It used to make me relaxed. Some stories, like this one and Harold and the Purple Crayon, have that same effect on me (and hopefully, on my kids).

  12. A colleague's answer to students' perennial complaint that we "over-analyze" things:

    There is no such thing as over-analysis, only less and more convincing analysis.

  13. Amusing, and spooky analysis -- funny when a rhetorician takes on rocker rabbit. But is it a fair fight? BTW I checked out your archives and really need a table of contents. Maybe it's time to publish a real paper and ink book.

  14. As you probably know, Margaret Wise Brown wrote a much better book: "The Important Book." Goodnight Moon is just not as important. Sorry, couldn't resist.

  15. I have never read Goodnight Moon.

  16. Kids books and psychopathology - how sweet :-)

  17. 1. You have totally blown my mind...

    2. Charlotte's Web is a great candidate for this. We fall in love with the anthropomorphized pig and wonder if it will be eaten the entire book - which is sort of like cannibalism because the child now doesn't know if the pig is a person or an animal. Winning, for the pig, becomes being allowed to stay with the family who might decide to eat him at any point, which sounds terrifying.

    It's like some nightmare where kids are made to wonder if their parents are going to turn on their children's friends and eat them unless the friends can some how prove their worth.

  18. There's another book in the "Disturbing Bunny Trilogy" that seems to illuminate some of these questions while introducing other, maybe even wronger concepts. It's called "My World."


    Think of it as "Fire Walk With Me" was to "Twin Peaks," but without David Bowie in it.

    P.S.: The last in the trilogy, "Runaway Bunny," however, makes perfect sense - just straightforward psychedelia illustrating the role of the omniscient mother / jailer archetype.

  19. The Old Lady is the baby bunny's future. The room represents the simultaneous existence of present/future or present/past. We're not sure because we can't be sure which of the characters, young or old, is actually speaking. They are 2 versions of the same bunny.

    What we do know is that this shit is about mortality, man. Goodnight moon indeed. Heavy.

    Awesome review. Totally fun. I will be working "perseverates" in to my next conversation with a stranger.

  20. Wrong. The pages are laced with morphine. That's what makes it magically put kids to sleep.

  21. Interesting interpretation of Goodnight Moon. I still love the book, and have my childhood copy... and will probably read it night after night after night to my own children.

  22. I just cant stop reading this. Its so cool, so full of information that I just didnt know. Im glad to see that people are actually writing about this issue in such a smart way, showing us all different sides to it. Youre a great blogger. Please keep it up. I cant wait to read whats next.

  23. I just found this post because I was searching online for an interpretation to Goodnight Moon? Did you know you made it to the first page of a Google search results list? Anyway, I just started reading Goodnight Moon to my 2 year old every night and she LOVES it. I'm starting to learn how important routines are (and coincidentally some say that's the theme of this book).

    I have put so much thought into this book since reading it every night now that I actually wrote a story of an older man returning home after many years to bury his mother and he stumbles upon his old bedroom--the great green room--and everything is the same--except broken or dusty or faded, etc.

    I wrote the older bunny as a hired caretaker and the child as having distant parents he barely knew. The caretaker says hush because he asks when his mother was going to come home (she doesn't want to tell him she doesn't want to come home and be a "mother"). In my story it's the older bunny's idea for the child to say goodnight to help him fall asleep. Basically she's the one the child is closest too and trusts.

    I don't mean to rain on your bashing parade. :-) It was terribly entertaining. I love that you pointed out the outrageous colors in the book. That always bugged me reading it as a child. Thank you for posting--and if you see this, for reading this. :-)


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