Sunday, February 3, 2013

Goodnight Stars

The other night my two-year-old daughter insisted that I read the classic children’s bedtime story Goodnight Moon to her before bed – five times in a row. Considering how many times I’ve been tempted to read my rowdy child the modern bedtime parody for adults called Go the F__ to Sleep, I was happy to oblige.

Goodnight Moon is not so much a story as a repetitive ritual designed to wind a child down for sleep. The narrator says goodnight to objects depicted in a child’s bedroom and visible through the windows: Goodnight room. Goodnight moon… Goodnight light, and the red balloon...” The light in the illustrated room dims gradually until only starlight and moonlight remain, gradually acclimating the child to the dark, as the book itself gradually lulls the child to sleep: “Goodnight stars… Goodnight air… Goodnight noises everywhere.”

Written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon was published in 1947 and slowly became a bestseller, until by 2007 the number of copies sold topped 16 million. That same year the National Education Association named it one of its “Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children.” It was named one of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.

Why is this simple piece so affecting for generation after generation? Interesting interpretations abound, from a darkly hilarious piece at the BetaDad blog called “Goodnight Moon: The Nauseating Landscape of Childhood Anxiety” (“The juxtaposition of a chromatically jarring setting, childish ramblings, and incongruous visual details creates a vertiginous psychological landscape with sinister undertones. As such, it resembles nothing so much as childhood itself”) to a fanciful but thought-provoking theory at Ukulele Underground, of all places, that Goodnight Moon was written as an allegory of the Cold War. It comes this close to having the ring of truth about it:

In the book, Communism is represented by a large red balloon, which continually hovers over the young child's bed. The light on the nightstand represented [Senator Joseph] McCarthy's efforts to shed light on domestic conspiracies by foreign operatives. The clocks represented the countdown to the next world conflict…

The simplest and most obvious reason, though, is that the book is hypnotically reassuring. But there is a mystical quality to it as well, in the guardian presence of the nighttime sky. To my daughter, there is something otherworldly – literally – and wondrous about the moon and stars. “The child's wonder/ At the old moon/ Comes back nightly,” wrote Carl Sandburg, and he is right. She often pulls me outside onto our deck at night simply to show me the moon and stars and observe them together. Her sense of wonder and awe about them is contagious even in a jaded modern adult like myself.

And yet at the same time, she takes for granted a world in which technology is indistinguishable from magic. At two years old she is adept at navigating her way around a Kindle Fire – scrolling to find the kids’ TV series and episode she wants, adjusting the volume, pausing and restarting. When I was her age back in the Mesozoic Era, technology played no part in my life. Remote controls, answering machines, even push-button phones didn’t exist. Today our lives, mine included, are crowded with distracting techno-toys clamoring for our attention.

To address that modern plugged-in existence comes a new parody of Goodnight Moon aimed at adults: Goodnight iPad, written by “Ann Droyd.” It updates the original with reference to all the magical gadgets that populate our lives: “Goodnight Nooks and digital books… Goodnight remotes and Netflix streams, Androids, apps, and glowing screens… Goodnight MacBook Air, Goodnight gadgets everywhere.” It humorously captures our reluctance to power down at the end of the day, to silence all “the bings, bongs, and beeps of emails and Tweets” and be alone with our divinely-sparked consciousness, under the watchful heavens. 

My daughter has no mystical connection to that technology. Unlike the moon and stars, it doesn’t hint at infinity or mortality or the very material of our own cells. “We are star stuff,” famously said another Carl S., Carl Sagan, and “some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return.” Our technology doesn’t compel her imagination or wonder or curiosity in the same spiritual way. It draws her away from herself, while the moon and stars bring her back home, and comfort her to sleep. I hope someday, when she is a jaded adult like me, she too has a child who reminds her of that.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/29/13)