Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Without mystery, hero, handsome prince or fairy godmother — good night moon has put millions of children to sleep, in more than two dozen languages, for 75 years.
Written by Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Clement Hurd, the picture book, which has sold over 40 million copies since its publication on September 3, 1947, wins over its readers with a soothing series of good evenings to everyday objects in “the big green room” before bedtime.
“It reflects what’s happening to the child, but it also gives him a sense of another world, something else that’s kind of a bigger, more peaceful world,” says Thacher Hurd, the son de Clement and himself an author and illustrator of children’s books.
“‘Goodnight stars and good night air. Goodnight noises everywhere.’ It’s very wide. You don’t even think about it, but it’s extremely open and wide and it’s a great feeling,” says Hurd.
good night moon was adapted for stage and screen, featured on The Simpsons, parodied, and given a special reading by LeVar Burton to Neil deGrasse Tyson. To celebrate its 75th anniversary, HarperCollins is releasing a special slipcase edition with a new foreword by Thacher Hurd.
But the now-iconic picture book was by no means an overnight sensation. Hard to believe – but in 1947, this innocent bedtime ritual was considered revolutionary.
Fairy tales against the here and now
Once upon a time, librarians set the standard for what books children should read. For decades, they believed classic fairy tales and fantasy were best for young minds, says children’s book historian Leonard Marcus. They favored stories, he explains, “that transported the children out of everyday life and enriched and cultivated their imagination”.
However, Brown brought children in a world they may know.
“good night moon was one of the first books for young children that focused on the everyday and recognized its value and importance for young children,” says Marcus, author of Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.
In 1935 Brown began a long association with the progressive Bank Street School in New York. Founded by educator and writer Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Bank Street brought together psychologists, pediatricians, sociologists and student teachers to explore how children learn. They collected data by observing and speaking directly to the experts: the children themselves. Their findings are neatly summed up in the title of Mitchell’s Here and Now Storybook.
Marcus says Bank Street practitioners have learned that children “want to experience the world they are in right now, starting with their own room, their own environment and their own street. The noises they hear, the the planes flying overhead, the trains and cars going by, they thought all of those everyday things were wonderful from a young child’s perspective.”
The breast problem
good night moon had its own “here and now” spirit. But for a children’s book to be commercially successful in 1947, it needed the approval of the New York Public Library, namely its influential children’s librarian, Anne Carroll Moore.
Courtesy of Thacher Hurd
Moore had an aversion to Bank Street progressives, something good night moonHarper’s Editor-in-Chief Ursula Nordstrom knew this firsthand. In 1945 Moore attempted to prevent another Nordstrom-edited book, EB White’s Stuart Little, to be published. Moore was apparently troubled by the idea of a mouse being born from a human.
Nordstrom, says Marcus, understood that Moore and other librarians “were very sensitive to body parts and physics in general.” So she asked illustrator Clement Hurd to make small changes to a few elements of her vibrant and detailed “big green room.”
In an early version of Hurd’s work, the mouse was on the little rabbit’s bed, and the cow jumping over the moon in the picture on the wall was anatomically correct with an udder. Remove the mouse from the bed and remove the cow’s udder, Nordstrom advised. “She was on high alert,” says Marcus. “She didn’t want to do a deep six of a book based on one or two details in the pictures.”
When good night moon was published in 1947, reviews were generally positive. The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “in these days of haste and tension, a book for little children that creates an atmosphere of peace and calm is something to be grateful for.” Kirkus Reviews called it a “really novel idea”.
But, despite Nordstrom’s best efforts, Moore was unimpressed. The New York Public Library is not just left out good night moon of his list of recommended children’s books, he didn’t even acquire it for the NYPL system.
“What they didn’t understand was [Brown] went straight to the child and that kind of basic human need,” says Jean McGinley, Vice President and Associate Publisher of HarperCollins’ Children’s Books. McGinley calls Brown a “pioneer” who “broke a formula” and incorporated “social-emotional learning.” .before everyone.”
Margaret Wise Brown was kind of a glamorous, wild child: a feisty, creative, and experimental writer known for wearing furs and driving a convertible. She loved rabbits and kept them as pets. The Rabbit on the Run is another Brown/Hurd collaboration. But she was also active in the sport of “beagling” in which runners raced through the woods after beagles chasing hares or rabbits – not to kiss them goodnight. “She wasn’t like a sweet, cute children’s book author,” Thacher Hurd remarks wryly.
“I don’t particularly like children”
Commenting on the possible contradiction between creating cuddly bunny characters and hunting them for sport, Brown said Life magazine, “Well, I don’t particularly like kids either,” she continued, “at least not in groups. I won’t let anyone get away with anything just because they is small.”
But Brown said she was very in touch with her inner child. She once said that to be a children’s writer, “you don’t have to like children, but what children like”. And Brown understood and gave the children what they wanted. In addition to writing over 100 stories for them, she has championed and edited other children’s book authors and illustrators. She introduced the hardback after watching small children chew on pages and picture books with fur and bells and other tactile sensations.
“A book can make a child laugh or give them a clear, happy mind as it follows a simple rhythm to its logical end,” Brown said. “It can make him run with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar, take him out for a few minutes of his own problems with untied shoelaces and busy parents and a mysterious clock, in the world of an insect or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of the story. If I was lucky, I hope I wrote a book simple enough to approach that timeless world.
Margaret Wise Brown never lived to see good night moonis a huge success. In 1952, during a trip to Paris, she died suddenly of an embolism following an operation. She was 42 years old. Twenty years later, the New York Public Library acquired good night moon and eventually named him one of “books of the century.”