OCTOBER 10, 2019
AFTER THE ZILLIONTH TIME I recited the final, softly padded couplet of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, “Goodnight stars / goodnight air / goodnight noises everywhere,” my daughter spoke up:
“It should say, ‘Goodnight me.’”
“Why?” I asked.
“The book never talks about the little bunny.”
The story in Goodnight Moon, as in all great picture books, comes not so much from an “illustration” of words or pictures with captions, but from an artistic interplay of words and images, and on the first page it is clear that the little bunny is the narrator. The bunny looks directly at the reader, and the “great green room” would be so expansively “great” only because the narrator is so small.
But such are the insights of children: unlike my daughter, I had never noticed that the bunny only appears in Clement Hurd’s illustrations, never in Brown’s words. The bunny may be narrating, but he or she (the gender is unnamed too, of course) expresses no self-consciousness.
It’s as if Brown anticipated the concept of “separation-individuation,” first developed by child psychiatrist Margaret Mahler in the 1960s. Separation-individuation is the process of understanding the self as apart from the mother (or more broadly, the caregiver). At this stage of the little bunny’s development, the whole great green room, with everything in it, is the bunny’s consciousness. On the book’s final pages, with eyes now closed, the bunny-narrator’s goodnights to “noises” and “air” are the closest we get to “goodnight me.” The bunny’s consciousness expands and contracts to the senses available, until, ultimately, consciousness gives way to slumber, and the book ends.
I realize my thoughts on all this could be borne from a mushy, sleep-deprived daddy-brain, but I have also read this book after a good night’s rest, looked into Brown’s life and times, and concluded something else. This book, which is fast approaching its 75th birthday, has become the classic bedtime story not only for the insights Brown has invited us to have into the child’s experience, but also, given its deep and lasting resonance, for its insights into the caretaker, the other character in the room who is identified — in Brown’s words, as “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush.’”
Children don’t buy their own books, after all. We parents, grandparents, nannies, family friends, babysitters, quiet-old-lady caregivers of every kind continue to read this book because we need to know: while we want our little bunnies to separate-individuate themselves, once they do, what becomes of us?
Margaret Wise Brown was born in 1910, grew up on Long Island, New York, and graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, majoring in English. She then moved to New York City to become a writer of literary fiction, inspired by the modernists of the day, particularly Gertrude Stein. There she joined the avant-garde, not in literature but in education, at the newly formed Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE), which is now the Bank Street School of Education. The BEE was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell on the pragmatic, democratic philosophy of John Dewey, and also the Play School Movement led by Caroline Pratt, which held that children develop knowledge by what adults consider “playing.” It’s a good reminder that what we now take for granted — that we should study how children think, act, and learn in order to teach them — was once an “educational experiment” by a handful of artists and intellectuals.
Brown became a classroom teacher, but BEE reformers also saw a need to develop new materials to support the school’s pedagogy, so an internal publishing house was formed, known as the Writers Laboratory, of which Brown became the lead writer and editor. She published dozens of books and wrote dozens of others. (As a literary sidenote, she and her colleagues solicited three literary titans of the day to write children’s books: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. The men declined, but Gertrude Stein, Brown’s literary inspiration, contributed The World Is Round, also illustrated by Clement Hurd.)
Like many literary modernists of the day, such as Virginia Woolf in her stream-of-consciousness novels, BEE writers sought to express a different quality of thinking: the child’s experience. Lucy Sprague Mitchell called it “here and now” writing, and it presented the child’s world not only in subject matter and tone, but also in the use of language, in patterns of rhymes and alliterations and also disruptions of these patterns. In many of Brown’s books, including Goodnight Moon, there is both a repetition and a randomness that feels uniquely, authentically childlike. If you have ever had an in-depth conversation with a toddler you know what I mean, and you know what Brown was after. It’s hard to say if this quality of Brown’s writing is childlike or modernist. More likely, it is both.
Goodnight Moon raises its own childlike “why?” questions, beginning with the “quiet old lady.” Who is she? She’s not a stranger, though she may as well be: she is not introduced as “the quiet old lady” but “a quiet old lady.” I am not a child psychologist, but I am a father of three, and it would sure seem that a child would say who it was — Grandma, Oma, Nanny, Auntie — and not just “a quiet old lady.”
She could be Brown’s revision of The Sandman — not sinister, as in the E. T. A. Hoffmann story of 1816, nor judgmental, as in the 1841 Hans Christian Andersen story: “Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night.” Goodnight Moon, in contrast, has no moral dimension. Brown’s quiet old lady carries knitting, representing a different kind of covering, one that is comforting no matter how good or bad the bunny is. (And the bunny is awfully squirmy in Clement Hurd’s illustrations, getting in and out from under the blanket, a disobedience familiar to anyone who has tucked in children.) The caregiver, “a quiet old lady,” is a constant, unconditional, soporific comfort, only whispering “hush” until, at some point before the final page, she has left the great green room of the bunny’s consciousness.
The other umbrella in the Hans Christian Andersen tale is blank underneath, as a punishment. Bad children don’t get to dream. Goodnight Moon doesn’t judge its little bunny, but it does have its own moment of “blankness”: “Goodnight nobody.” This sentence lands like a punch line. In the midst of nursery rhyme couplets it doesn’t rhyme with anything, and on pages that depict a room gradually getting darker, it’s on a bright white page. It feels like an avant-garde gesture, like a Kazimir Malevich “white on white” painting or a John Cage ode to silence, which may be a reverent, philosophical statement about art and life, but may also be an irreverent, Dada-esque nose-thumbing at what we expect from picture books. It also feels like an authentically childlike non sequitur. Did the bunny’s mind just go blank? Did he or she reach a final moment of overtiredness, saying, “nobody,” as a way of just saying, “no!” to bedtime?
There is another possibility, one that reflects on the caregiver. “Goodnight comb / goodnight brush,” the book says for the second time, calling to mind the old lady saying, “hush,” a rhyme — and a person — we know will follow, but the next page is unexpectedly blank. If the bunny is undergoing the process of individuation, “nothingness” is what the caregiver becomes as a result.
At least, this is what we fear. Caretaking is self-erasure, in two steps. First, infants and toddlers squeeze every drop of us, as much as we love them. Second, they grow up and away from us, leaving us emptied out. After “goodnight nobody,” the quiet old lady appears once more, and two pages later, she’s gone.
“Do you need your daddy for anything anymore?” I recently joked with my daughter, who is now eight. She was learning to ice skate, and she didn’t want me to hold her hand, or skate alongside her, or talk to her — or, she said, even to look at her as I passed by.
“Well, yes,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “But not for this.”
Before too long, I know, she will also tell me she doesn’t need to be tucked in at night. Growing up is pushing away — which is something I want, I have to remember, even as it is hard to accept. A father friend of mine once told me that teaching how to ride a bike is the best symbol for raising kids: you wear yourself out running and pushing them, and once you both are successful, they’re off, and there’s no hope in keeping up. In Goodnight Moon, Clement Hurd’s illustrations picture the little bunny going to sleep, but Brown’s words tell of a different passage, that of the caretaker, from being an essential, necessary comfort in daily life to being somewhere — or something — else.
“Where do you think the quiet old lady goes?” I once asked my son, who was then maybe three or four (he is now 11). I always figured that she went to do the dishes, or take out the trash, or chat with her quiet old partner before she gets ready for bed herself.
My son looked at me as if I had missed the obvious. “She goes in the house!”
I laughed, first because she couldn’t fit in the little toy house. I then laughed at myself, as my reaction showed such a limited, grown-up imagination. I saw the glowing house as the night-light. He saw what a night-light actually is: a proxy for the caregiver, one that will stay on until the light of morning comes again.
I have to have faith in this as a father because I know it is true as a son: when the child grows up and away, the caregiver is not gone, does not become “nobody.” We parents, grandparents, nannies, family friends, babysitters, quiet-old-lady caregivers of every kind, we become a light — if not as a guide in the great green room, then as a glow of love.
Brian Goedde is an assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia. A graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, he has written personal essays for The New York Times, The Seattle Review, and Full Grown People (The Other Awkward Age), among other publications.