The Beautiful Meaning Behind The Children’s Book Classic “Goodnight Moon”
The best children’s books become classics because they impart important life lessons and truths, they ease fears and gently introduce kids to the world around them. One of my all-time favourites is the incredible classic “Goodnight Moon” by Margarat Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd (Harper), which has put over 14 000 000 children to bed at night since it was first published in 1947. Making it one of the best-selling picture books of all time! Why is that you may ask? Well, I would like to offer a psychoanalytic reading of the book in order to give parents insight into why this book manages to create so much calm at bedtime.
But first, why is bedtime such a tricky time?
Bedtime is so complicated for kids because it’s a daily ritual that straddles the known and the unknown. If you think about books about the end of life, they often incorporate images of sleep. In its own way, sleep is like a mini good-bye and for little people this can feel pretty scary! Sleep is a transitional space between ‘being together’ with people into ‘being alone’ with our thoughts, which can be intimidating. Somewhere parents know this too. Perhaps because we were once kids as well, but also because we still don’t quite know how to name this dread. Great books can help us all contain these anxieties.
So with this in mind, let’s think about “Goodnight Moon”
If you haven’t read it yet, before continuing with this article, check out this You Tube book reading. So in this story, a maternal bunny sits knitting in the corner of a “great green room” as the little bunny in her care attempts to fall asleep. As he lies there, his eyes move around the room surveying its contents. It has a telephone, a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon. It is filled with interesting things like clocks, socks, chairs, bears, kittens and mittens. In the story, with the help of the even keeled narrator, the bunny methodically and repetitively bids goodnight to each element in the room, until he finally falls asleep. So, let’s look at some key elements of this story and try to understand how these unconsciously communicate to your child that it’s safe to sleep as well.
This is how it all begins – “In the great green room there is a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon…”. Here the “great green room” sets the scene for a big wide world that the bunny lives in. The first object mentioned is a telephone which is a device for communication. It is the thing that connects people who feel far away and really here, it represents the idea of the mother (or caregiver) who not only will hear if the little bunny calls out in the night, but who (more importantly) hears the bunny’s anxiety and respects his need to hold on a little longer before sleep. The red balloon which floats in space, speaks to free floating thoughts that come about at night time: Which can either be whimsical and fun like a dream, or which can pop and frighten at any moment, like a nightmare. “The cow jumping” over the moon and later reference to “kittens with mittens” invites the listening child to let their mind wander safely (anchored by the rhymes he already knows) but then to gently allow himself to be carried away into the depths of his own dreams. Towards the end of the book there is an interplay between the blank image of ‘nobody’ and the ‘quiet old lady who is whispering hush’. This acknowledges the interplay between the aloneness that sleep brings (nobody) and the parental figure (the old lady) who makes sure that bunny is safe and looked after in the dark. All these images create a beautiful setting that unconsciously communicates calm to your own child who is quietly listening. Deep down your child knows all these common images and what they mean. And so, when it comes time for bed, the child is drawn into this familiar scene and with it, the all too familiar night-time feelings.
For me the green and red colour palette is so interesting and not an obvious choice. On the colour wheel, green and red are complementary colours. Meaning that when they are placed next to each other they intensify each other’s tones. This is a very clever colour combination and the intensity is pleasing to the brain. Interestingly, as the colours intensify, so too do the bunny’s feelings. The other tones are shadowy whites and greys. They remind me of pencil marks where things can be rubbed out and redrawn. This can be seen as a nod to dreaming and the comings and goings of day and night.
The Rhyme and Repetition
This is perhaps the most magical element of the book. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot speaks about consistency in a child’s early development, and how the repetition of what he calls a “good-enough” parental presence is the main thing that leads to the development of a healthy mind in a child. If a child can come to expect that while mommy goes, she also returns (over and over again) the child can then also learn to manage alone time, because the world is a predictable place and mommy will always come back. The story cleverly mimics this process with the gentle repetition of rhyming sounds as the bunny says goodnight to all familiar elements in his room. As the little bunny casts an eye over the familiar space and says good night, you will notice how the repeating sounds and activity has a grounding effect on your child. As the bunny says good night to each element, your child is also assured that when his eyes open again, all those familiar things (and especially you) will still be there in the morning.
The Bottom Line
Bedtime is tough, but books are a beautiful bridge into the unknown spaces of sleep. “Goodnight Moon” is one of those exceptional stories where the author instinctively “gets” the complications of this nighttime ritual. And offers a story that moves beyond entertainment and distraction, into a space where parent and child can sit together in something complex, and survive it together in a calm and predictable way.