75 Years of Goodnight Moon: Today’s Best Writers Reflect on a Children’s Classic
Jess de Courcy Hinds on Margaret Wise Brown’s Beloved Book
This fall, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, turns 75. I celebrated the occasion by reading Amy Gary’s fantastic biography, In the Great Green Room, written after Gary discovered hundreds of unpublished manuscripts by Brown in her sister’s attic.
This book led me to Julia Fine’s boldly feminist novel, The Upstairs House, the story of a depressed new mother who is haunted by Brown and her female lover, avant-garde performer Michael Strange. As a queer writer, mom and youth librarian, I was delighted by this novel and the fact that more writers are penning great “parenthood lit”—and that this one also illuminates an unsung queer literary heroine! I also viewed a video of NASA astronaut Dr. Thomas Marshburn reading the bedtime classic from space, drifting through the air like the red balloon in the story.
These experiences sharpened my hunger to revisit a childhood favorite. I began asking other writers how they feel about the book, reaching out to literary luminaries like Jacqueline Woodson, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, who has published books for children, adolescents and adults, and has won top awards for young people’s literature. Her YA memoir in verse, Brown Girl, Dreaming, novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, and picture book Each Kindness, are deeply beloved to me; I also teach them to my library science graduate students, and have hosted Woodson at the high school library direct.
When I interviewed Woodson over email, she shared that she was a longtime fan of Goodnight Moon, with the slight caveat that the book has limitations. As she wrote:
“The ‘goodnight nobody’ always caught me by surprise and made me think, and I love picture books that make me think… I thought in including that ‘Goodnight nobody’ spread, Hurd and Brown were telling a quiet truth about emptiness and the world even as they cloaked it inside a young being’s fighting sleep.”
When I asked if Brown’s book shaped Woodson as a writer, she shared that the bedtime classic encouraged her own risk-taking when writing for children. However, Woodson believes that the book has endured because it’s considered “safe,” or unthreatening. “If parents don’t want to talk about deeper issues with their children, it doesn’t ask them to do so. Anthropomorphism, of course, means not having to deal with gender or race, so there’s that too.”
Indeed, the rabbits are stand-ins for a human child and “old lady whispering hush,” whose identity is never disclosed. There is something static and emotionless about the bunnies, which allows readers to superimpose their own realities onto them. The red, green and yellow room often seems more alive than the characters that inhabit it.Why rabbits? Clement Hurd, an experimental artist without a background in children’s illustration, was terrible at drawing people.
Thacher Hurd, son of illustrator Clement Hurd, wrote in the 75th-anniversary edition of the book that it was a sleeper hit, nearly going out of print a few years after publication in the 1950s. By 1981, when the book was going strong again, a parent wrote to say that his son had pressed his foot into the pages, trying to enter the great green room, which was real to him. The room was based on Brown’s neighbor’s living room—not a child’s nursery at all. In fact, the room and the entire book, came to Brown in a dream.
After jotting down every detail from the dream—from the odd tiger-skin rug to the black telephone—Brown called her editor, Ursula Nordstrom, and read the story aloud to her. Brown’s first version ended with a cucumber and a fly (“Goodnight cucumber!”) until her editor nixed it, according to Danielle Higley’s engrossing Story Behind the Story: The Remarkable True Tales Behind Your Favorite Children’s Books. Later, Brown redecorated her own bedroom so that it matched every detail from the book, and when her goddaughter slept over, she got to sleep in the mythic green room.
Why rabbits? Clement Hurd, an experimental artist without a background in children’s illustration, was terrible at drawing people. Also, Brown was fond of bunnies, and kept them as pets. But she was also a hunter—known affectionately to friends as “the lady butcher”—and skinned pets for their fur when they died of natural causes.
Next, I reached out to novelist Helen Phillips, curious if the unnerving aspects of Brown’s writing (and biography) resonated with her. Phillips’ most recent novel, The Need (2019) focuses on a mother who is terrorized by a mysterious intruder. I was interested to learn that Goodnight Moon was “a foundational book” for Phillips, and that the red, green and yellow color scheme from Brown’s dream influenced her own home décor. Even more, I was fascinated to follow Phillips path through the book, a journey from “…the known to the unknown.” As she writes:
The book begins by listing and thus solidifying known and familiar objects, cataloguing the mouse and all. But then the void begins to make itself known, as the pages slowly darken, as we arrive at Goodnight nobody—both funny and eerie. By the end, this cozy space proves to exist at the edge of an abyss, beneath darkness, under a sweep of stars—Goodnight stars, Goodnight air, Goodnight noises everywhere—its coziness in stark contrast to the universe beyond. The safety of the room provides a child a space from which to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos.
Sophie Labelle also found the book soothing. The author and artist well-known for the “Assigned Male” comic, she has also published many groundbreaking picture books and the middle grade novel, Ciel. As she recalled, the bedroom in Goodnight Moon was calming for her as “…a neurodivergent trans child who was haunted by so many thoughts the second I went to bed.” The objects in the room “were displayed like an exhibit for me to survey,” and the “process of naming them… acted as an exorcism.”
I got a different perspective on anxiety from Jen Malia, the author of a picture book and forthcoming children’s novel series about autistic children. Malia described herself as “…an undiagnosed autistic girl who imagined that all the stuffed animals in my bedroom—especially my life size Raggedy Ann doll—came alive at night.” She doesn’t remember reading Goodnight Moon as a kid, but believes it would have rattled her.
Fantasy writer Stephanie Feldman revised her first novel during a time when she felt like she was reading Brown’s book on repeat, in an endless loop. Her newest book out this month, Saturnalia, described by reviewers as an “twisted, ethereal dispatch from a climate change point of no return.” Feldman wonders if Goodnight Moon gave her an appreciation of all the question marks that can appear in narratives. “Who is the old lady?” she wondered during these repeated nursery read-alouds. “What’s going on in that dollhouse, lit from within? I love that Goodnight Moon is at home in that weird, liminal space of bedtime, which is inescapably spooky for kids (and sometimes grownups).”The 75th anniversary of Goodnight, Moon invites people of all ages to rediscover the 131-word masterpiece.
Poet K.C. Trommer, however, was more troubled the by presence of the old lady whispering hush. “Was she a comfort or a threat?” Trommer wondered. “Why does she leave the bunny alone in a room with an open fire?” Amy Cherrix, a former children’s book buyer for Malaprop Books in North Carolina and the author of the numerous books for children, including Goodnight Little Bookstore, was the only author who viewed the old lady in a positive light.
Cherrix overlaid her own happy childhood memories onto the unsmiling old lady figure, who was likely based on one of Brown’s babysitters. Growing up, there were several “grandmotherly” people who taught her to read and kept her stomach full. The bowl of mush on the table, although it strikes some readers as disgusting (especially next to the comb and brush!), reminded Cherrix of comfort food, and falling asleep after a big meal.
One of the children’s picture book writers I’m most excited about, and highly recommend to the new librarians I train, is Maryann Jacob Macias, who recently published the charming Téo’s Tutu, illustrated in vibrant, Batik-like washes of brown, teal and purple by Alea Marley. Like Trommer, Macias also felt discomfort with the old lady, especially when reading it with her two children. For her kids, the old lady represented a critic who smashed apart the dreamy, magical world that Brown previously had built.
In contrast, the presence of adults is heartwarming in Téo’s Tutu. As Téo takes tentative steps towards wearing a pink tutu to ballet class—expressing what Macias calls “gender creativity”—his parents shelter him with a gentle, accepting love. When Téo doubts himself, his eyes widen beneath his Afro and his stomach goes “topsy-turvy.” But his parents hold his hands and gaze at him with a palpable sweetness that brings tears to my eyes.
During an invigorating Zoom chat with Macias, she mused that while Goodnight Moon was inspiring in many ways, she’s grateful to be writing in today’s publishing world. Growing up, she barely read kid lit at all because didn’t see herself in Judy Blume or other children’s books starring white characters. Thankfully, her big-hearted story of a Colombian and Indian family dancing together isn’t an anomaly today.
When I read Téo to my kids, 10 and 3, their eyes light up every time. Their responses to Goodnight Moon are less predictable. The toddler slammed the book closed one time. When I shared this with Pat Cummings, the Coretta Scott King Award-winning author and illustrator, she responded, “Your daughter has good taste!”
Although the author, whose most recent picture book is Where’s Mommy? finds the book “instructive” for her students at the Pratt Institute and Parsons, the classic ultimately lacks “emotionally resonant” characters or plot. Cummings appreciates that the book helps soothe children’s “visceral fear” of falling asleep. Still, she doesn’t think the book would be published today.
When I asked her why she taught the book if it wasn’t a favorite, Cummings explained that she believed it was too ubiquitous to be ignored, like Disney. In other words, it was an inescapable touchstone.
Indeed, Cherrix’s connection to the classic was so “deeply forged” that she didn’t even recognize Brown’s influence on her own goodnight book. Despite the fact that she had an MA in Children’s Literature, and had sold thousands of copies of the “original mindfulness book,” Cherrix was thunderstruck by the realization that her Goodnight Little Bookstore might be a progeny of Goodnight Moon. She hadn’t considered this connection until her book was accepted for publication (which might have been a good thing!)
The 75th anniversary invites people of all ages to rediscover the 131-word masterpiece. Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond said that she’d never encountered Goodnight Moon as a child, but it had been recommended constantly since she had her children’s writing debut, Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea And As Wide as the Sky. “Prompted by your email, I finally bought it,” she wrote me.
So far, 855 readers have commented on Elisabeth Egan’s lovely New York Times tribute this month. One of them was Julie of Baltimore, who reflects that Egan’s article helped her rediscover the book as a “road map” to dying of colon cancer. Now she knows how to say, “Goodnight moon, goodnight my cats, goodnight my children, goodnight my photographs, goodnight…”
Goodnight Moon can give us profound and simple gifts at both ends of our lifetimes. With ripe moons in our windows, dollhouses blazing, mittens drying in front of fireplaces, and kittens coexisting with mice, maybe we can all glide more easily into moments of uncertainty and darkness.