The Enduring Wisdom of “Goodnight Moon”

From a New York Times story by Elisabeth Egan headlined “The Enduring Wisdom of ‘Goodnight Moon'”:

The first 25 times I read “Goodnight Moon,” I cried. Not in a dainty, tear-dabbing way; I’m talking Niagara waterworks, heaving sobs and a red nose.

My firstborn daughter was only a few days old, swaddled in a blanket printed with baleful teddy bears, when we made our first foray into the iconic picture book by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. I’d been a mother for long enough to know how little I knew: My bathing and feeding skills were weak. My diapering experience was limited to Cabbage Patch Kids. The one-handed stroller collapse that would become my signature maneuver was a mirage shimmering beyond a desert of sleepless nights.

Reading was something I could do, and I thought the experience would be soothing for all involved — including my husband, who was sweating over instructions for a bottle sterilizer that looked like R2-D2. I picked “Goodnight Moon” because I remembered how veteran parents had slapped their hands over their hearts when I unwrapped the slim hardcover at my baby shower. The vote was unanimous: “That one is the best.”

Except it wasn’t. The book was maudlin and depressing. It lacked the wild abandon of “Jamberry” and the wacky nonsense of “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket!” The lone red balloon made me feel like I was staring down a well, and the font reminded me of a standardized test. Plus, “Goodnight nobody?” It was a knife to the heart. By the time I arrived at “Goodnight noises everywhere,” I was mopping my face with the teddy bear blanket.

For the uninitiated, “Goodnight Moon” tells the story of a rabbit getting ready for bed, bidding adieu to a series of items in his bedroom: a little toy house and a young mouse, “a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush and a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush.’”

That lady, a mature-looking bunny, sits in a yellow rocking chair, knitting while the little guy makes his rounds. Was she his mother? Grandmother? Babysitter? How could she just sit there? Shouldn’t she hug the little bunny, soothe him, assure him that she was there for him? He looks so sad, clutching his knees, marooned in a too-big bed. Then she exits the room, leaving him in the dark with nary a backward glance. Unconscionable!

My husband quietly lifted our daughter out of my arms, his face arranged in the patient expression he wore while helping his grandmother into a minivan.

Around the time my daughter started preschool, I started to develop a grudging respect for “Goodnight Moon.” It takes two minutes to read, depending on the frequency of your audience’s interruptions to request an extension on bedtime. There are no flaps to lift, sound effects to approximate or thought bubbles to explain. The book has a pleasing, economical feel, like a mug with the perfect handle.

I appreciated that the bunnies don’t have their own shows, movies and theme parks. You won’t find them on boxes of Band-Aids or tubes of toothpaste. They aren’t as melancholy as the Velveteen Rabbit or as cheeky as Peter; they aren’t anodyne like Pat, sinister like Bunnicula or inscrutable like Miffy. I still didn’t actively seek out the great green room, but if someone nudged me across the threshold I could navigate without bawling.

Then our son arrived in the world like a comet breaking the sound barrier, or Kramer skidding into Jerry’s apartment. There was no reading to this infant; he would slither free of blankets and rock bouncy chairs across the floor, bellowing so loudly that the force of his voice would push his eyebrows into his hairline. He scaled bookshelves while I ran a bath; crawled holes in the knees of his onesies; rattled the slats of his crib like an unruly inmate demanding a call to his lawyer.

He was bewitching, sweet, playful and wildly entertaining, the kind of baby strangers admired in the grocery store. But his evening routine almost broke me. It went on for hours: dinner, tub, stories, singing, wailing, more singing, more wailing. He wanted someone to lie down with him. He wanted someone to hold his hand. He wanted a different person to hold his other hand. The requests became more plaintive and exacting as the evening wore on. Yes, we tried letting him cry.

I avoided pitying glances from neighbors. I consulted my sister, my friends, the pediatrician and the pediatrician mother of my husband’s friend’s wife. I took up knitting. I fell asleep reading books about sleep.

One night as I braced for impact, still wearing a too-snug dress from work, I plucked the familiar orange spine from our jumble of library books and aspirational novels ( “Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women”). I brought it to my daughter’s bed, where my kids waited on a patchwork quilt stitched with frogs, cats and sad bears.

As I read — “Goodnight kittens and goodnight mittens, goodnight clocks and goodnight socks” — the manic energy dropped by 15 degrees. The room was so quiet, I could hear the cat purring and our neighbor playing the piano. Remember the moment when “The Wizard of Oz” goes from black-and-white to color? It was like that.

A warm, doughy starfish hand came to rest on my wrist and remained there as I turned the pages. A fragrant, damp head plunked onto my shoulder. At the end of the book, my son took a finger out of his mouth and said quietly, “Again.”

On the second reading, we laughed about the mush; it is a funny word, after all. We found the mouse who pops up in a different place in every picture — Where’s Waldo, rodent edition. I pointed out the copy of “Goodnight Moon” on the little rabbit’s bedside table and “The Runaway Bunny” (also by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd) on the bookshelf. My daughter counted the stars.

Suddenly, I saw the bunnies in a new light. The little one wasn’t sad; he was calm. The big one wasn’t cold or negligent; she was a reassuring presence. Together they were at peace, enjoying their view of the moon and the deepening shadows over a well-organized, thoughtfully-arranged room. Everything had a match: the socks, the slippers, the mittens, even the kittens. The curtains were neatly tied back, both on the actual windows and in the warmly-lit doll house. This was a fantasy world, one I yearned to be part of even more than I wanted a kid who loved to read.

That night, possibly for the first time in his life, my son fell asleep without protest. While I sang his personalized alphabet song — each letter stood for something crucial, and if you fumbled one you had to start all over — I looked down at his toddler face and knew I was catching a glimpse of the young man he would become.

In the movie version of this story, we would read “Goodnight Moon” every night. When our youngest arrived, her siblings would present her with a fresh copy — a board book, perhaps, or a waterproof teething edition. Our son would never rabble-rouse at bedtime again. He’d dress up as one of the creators of “Goodnight Moon” for the third grade wax museum, a grand occasion when students impersonate people they admire. When he went to college, he’d tack the tattered dust jacket to the bulletin board in his dorm room.

In real life, we read “Goodnight Moon” many, many times but it was just part of the rotation — a favorite outfit, not a uniform. Our older kids had nothing to offer their baby sister except eternal devotion, and that was enough. Our son was Steve Jobs in the wax museum. He is now an Olympic sleeper. When I told him I was writing about the great green room, he said, “Cool,” which is teenage boy for “I have no idea what you’re talking about and can’t be bothered to ask.”

In a cinematic twist — for me, at least — we left our son at college the day before “Goodnight Moon” celebrated its 75th birthday. (His only piece of art was a Sopranos poster; alas, there wasn’t enough wall space to hang it.) When I said goodbye, I thought of the old lady rabbit in the blue dress, knowing her little bunny would be OK when she left the room. I hugged my son. I told him how much I love him. I told him to be brave and kind. Then I put on my gigantic sunglasses, walked down two flights of stairs, passed other parents who probably read “Goodnight Moon” to their kids, and went home. Yes, I cried.

Did the big bunny worry about her son (as I like to think of him)? Did she press her ear to the door, listening and wondering how he was doing in there? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, she knew he was ready to be alone. According to the two clocks in his room, she’d already been sitting with him for over an hour. The time had come!

I’ve been a mother for long enough to know that my kids know I’m there for them when we’re apart. And I want them to be out in the world, exploring, learning, imagining, figuring out what’s important to them. I’ve seen the alternative — the year of school in their bedrooms, the constant togetherness, the socially-distanced visits with the friends who are their oxygen — and I won’t romanticize it. After living with three cooped-up teenagers, “Goodnight nobody” sounds more like a lullaby than a dirge.

Maybe this is why we give “Goodnight Moon” to new parents — why we inscribe its cheerful yellow endpapers with encouraging notes, why I know all 131 words by heart, a decade after I stopped reading it at bedtime. It’s a blueprint for peace in a time of chaos, and it reminds us how independence can be another kind of oxygen, one that’s necessary for humans and bunnies of all ages. The cozy light, the fresh pajamas, the promise of rest and dreams, the chance to do it all again tomorrow? It was always within reach, and it didn’t last long. But it was enough.


  1. Malcolm Glass says

    Such a beautiful, heartfelt piece. Elisabeth’s perceptions make clear why this simple story is so deeply moving and so rich in understanding of the soul of humanity. I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t imagine a more gorgeous tribute to “Goodnight Moon” than Eric Whitacre’s setting. Of the many renditions, the orchestral version, with Eric’s wife Hila Plitmann as soloist, is the most beautiful. I’ve listened to it almost 25 times, always with tissues near at hand. The experience of the words, enriched by music so simple and so glorious, is utterly transcendent.

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