Margaret Wise Brown was a genius. Pure and simple...and she kept her stories simple. She and her stories were the epitome of "less is more." How much more simple, yet stunningly beautiful can you get than "In the great green room/There was a telephone/And a red balloon/And a picture of--The cow jumping over the moon"? It's pure poetry. Word choice is everything in writing...which may be pointing out the obvious but it never hurts to review. Having said that, it is particularly important in writing for children. Those not in the know have a tendency to think "How hard can it be? Children's stories are short, cute things...not many words to them." I beg to differ.
In a novel for adults a writer can take hundreds of pages to develop a story. Yes, the words are important...without a doubt. After all, "the knife glinted in the moonlight" calls to mind a vastly different mental image than "the knife flashed in the moonlight." But, compared to a story for kids there's more room to play. The average picture book is 32-pages in length, with most of the space used for the illustrations. For the sake of this argument, I'm not including lengthier items such as folklore or fairy tale retellings. Now, getting back to the original discussion, 32-pages of mostly pictures doesn't leave a whole lot of time or space for the story to develop. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Pat Hutchins' Rosie's Walk is a mere thirty-one words. And yet a complete story is told in those thirty-one words (not to mention an extra tale of sorts told in the illustrations).
Goodnight Moon takes a little longer to come full circle, 130 words to be exact...most of which are repeated. "In the great green room...Goodnight room...." What beautiful words they are. Each is familiar to the young listener and thus adds an element of comfort...nothing is new or unfamiliar. The story pairs nicely with a favorite blanket and stuffed animal, which was, perhaps, part of Brown's idea behind it.
Clement Hurd's illustrations can't be overlooked, either. He spared no detail. The room is awash in bright colors as the young rabbit gets ready for bed, still wide awake, possibly "not quite ready to go to sleep" and trying to stall, stars twinkling out the window. As the goodnights progress, the room grows darker...lamp light eventually replaced by moonlight as it rises and can finally be seen through the window...and little rabbit getting sleepier...and sleepier...and sleepier.
Why is this such a classic? Because it reflects a young child perfectly. Every child has a routine at bedtime. Blankets MUST cover a child a certain way. Stuffed animals MUST be lined up on the bed in a certain order. Heaven help the parent who gets it wrong. In a child's world, everything has its place and order and must be in it. Little rabbit saying goodnight to all the things in her room mirrors this. It is reassuring, and not just for the child. Goodnight Moon also reminds the grownup to slow down, to stop and appreciate all the wonderful people and things around them, making sure that everything is in its place, in its proper perspective.
Ah. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight, wonderful little book. Goodnight, Ms. Margaret Wise Brown. Hush.