The Genesis of Goodnight Moon

I loved Aimee Bender's appreciation of Goodnight Moon (via Kottke). She does a great job of describing how the book's genius lies in how it creates a structure and then deviates from it in surprising ways:

For writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure. “Goodnight nobody” is an author’s inspired moment that is inexplicable and moving and creates an unknown that lingers. How wonderful that this oddly compassionate moment, where even nobody gets a good night, shows up in the picture book that is the most popular! There is no template, ever.

I wrote a bit about Margaret Wise Brown years ago for The Writer's Almanac, and I was especially interested in how, in writing Goodnight Moon, she drew on her knowledge of the way children learn language.

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. What she found was that children in the earliest stage of linguistic development relish language with patterns of sound and fixed rhythms. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.

She eventually began to write books for children based on her research, and in 1938 she became the editor of a publishing house called William R. Scott & Company, which specialized in new children's literature. The Great Depression had made children's books into luxury items, and most other publishing houses had phased out children's literature. Margaret Wise Brown helped make children's books profitable, because she understood that children experience books as sensual objects. She invested in high quality color illustrations, and she printed her books on strong paper with durable bindings, so that children could grab, squeeze, and bite their books the way they did with all their toys.

Brown had been a fairly successful writer and editor for almost ten years when, one morning, she woke up and wrote a poem, listing the items in a house, and then saying goodnight to each item, including the famous lines “Goodnight room / Goodnight moon / Goodnight cow jumping over the moon … / Goodnight comb / And goodnight brush / Goodnight nobody / Goodnight mush. / And goodnight to the old lady whispering 'hush' / Goodnight stars / Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere.” She thought the poem could be made into a book, so she sent it off to her publisher, and it was published in 1947 as Goodnight Moon.

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn't sell as well as some of Brown's other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book's almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.

Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.