75 Years Later, Why Is Goodnight Moon Still Lulling So Many Children to Sleep?
Margaret Wise Brown’s book, as heartwarming and beloved as it is, should be joined by a more diverse collection of children’s books, say BU faculty
I’m not sure how Goodnight Moon ends. Not because it’s been 30-some-odd years since I’ve read the children’s book (although that doesn’t help), but because almost every time my parents read it to me before bed, I fell asleep before they finished.
This is not a knock on Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s book, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. If anything, it’s a testament to its power. Goodnight Moon did its job—for millions of parents and children. The bedtime book is still wildly popular. It’s sold more than 40 million copies in the last seven decades.
“The book is designed to lull children to sleep,” says Laura M. Jiménez, a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development senior lecturer and associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It’s got that repetition, it has that quietude of language that kids thirst for. It is very unique in the sense that it wasn’t a plot-and-character piece of literature; it was never meant to be that.”
Published in 1947, Goodnight Moon was a radical departure from other children’s books at the time, says Jiménez, who teaches courses on children’s literature. Rather than retell classic fables that hammered home lessons on morality, Brown focused on the experience of children themselves. She wrote for them, rather than about them.
“The audience isn’t the adult reading it, it’s literally the child as listener or reader, which is a lot different than a lot of other books,” she says.
Goodnight Moon takes its readers through the bedtime routine of its protagonist, a young rabbit, who says goodnight to the things in its room. An older rabbit, knitting in a rocking chair, is described only as a “quiet old lady,” who remains in the background except to whisper, “Hush.”
One page is blank save for the words, “Goodnight nobody.” Opposite it, another page reads, “Goodnight mush” under a bowl of oatmeal. (This one is my favorite page.)
Although it’s written for children, part of what makes Goodnight Moon so enduring is its appeal to parents, says Sheila Cordner (GRS’13), a College of General Studies senior lecturer. To this day, she says, the book is such a popular gift at baby showers and early birthdays because “it does this one deep-dive for kids before bedtime and it does do that so well.
“It’s soothing and still imaginative,” says Cordner, who studies children’s literature and has written one of her own: Who’s Hiding in This Book? Meet Ten Authors (Pierce Press, 2019).
Still, the popularity of Goodnight Moon close to a century after it was published gives Jiménez pause. There are other books, she argues, that should sit beside it within a child’s library.
“As a children’s literature scholar—and I specialize in the representation of marginalized identities—I look at this and see that 75 years later, we’re still in a moment where more picture books represent anthropomorphized animals than racial minorities,” she says.
In 2019, the most recent year for which complete data were available, 29 percent of children’s books published in the United States featured primary characters who were animals, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library within the University of Wisconsin–Madison that publishes diversity and demographic statistics about children’s books in the United States. The same year, almost 42 percent of books featured a white primary character. Only 12 percent of children’s books published that year featured a Black or African primary character; 9 percent featured Asian or Asian American characters; and 5 percent featured Latinx characters.
I look at this and see that 75 years later, we’re still in a moment where more picture books represent anthropomorphized animals than racial minorities.
“We’re making it easier to relate to and have an emotional connection to a talking, dressed-up bunny than we do an African American character, and that worries me,” Jiménez says.
Reading books over and over to children teaches them more than just what’s contained on the pages, she says—it teaches them what to expect in media and what’s worthy of belonging in picture books. These lessons can remain well into adulthood.
Cordner agrees, and says that in her classes about childhood and children’s literature, every student remembers at least one book from their childhood.
“Often, animals can be a fun substitute for humans in children’s books, but it would be wonderful to include a broader range of human characters in our children’s libraries,” she says. “Books can take advantage of children’s openness to other cultures, and other ways of living, because children haven’t developed biases and judgments.”
“It’s not about a single book, it’s about a menu,” Jiménez says. “If a kid has a varied menu of literature, it serves them well.”
So, in addition to picking up Goodnight Moon for the children in your life, or as a gift to a new parent, here are a few bedtime stories Jiménez and Cordner recommend. Happy reading, everyone, and “Goodnight noises everywhere.”
- Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall
- Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
- Flashlight Night by Matt Forrest Esenwine
- Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes
- A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin
- Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
- Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez
- Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
- Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein
- Everybody in the Red Brick Building by Anne Wynter