Goodnight Mantle Decor, Or What Margaret Wise Brown Conveniently Overlooked

There's a children's book called Goodnight Moon, which if you don't have a child or don't remember your own childhood, because let's face it, that could have been quite a while ago, you at least might recognize from a certain Audi commercial.

Goodnight Moon was published — or maybe we should say "put together," since "writing" isn't a word I associate with a 130-word piece — in 1947 and it reads weirdly in that weird way that stuff from back then reads. Not that it's necessarily weird, just that children from the 1940s seem like they were probably weird (sorry, Mom and Dad!). Maybe it's just that for me stuff from the 1940s seems like the line between olden times (like the Civil War) and modern times (like, I don't know, Mad Men?). (Actually, wasn't this a plot line on Mad Men, that Don Draper was the demarcation line between old-school war hero U.S. culture and new school 1960s culture? See I knew this tangent wasn't totally off base. Thank you, Matthew Weiner! Even though you were born in 1965, so like what the fuck?)

Anyway, all of which is to say that Goodnight Moon feels like it's old. Like in the way Dashiell Hammett feels old — and maybe in a way Mad Men does not; one of my pet peeves with that show is that I've wondered whether there was too much anachronism in the motivations of the characters: Like this is a modern drama trapped in a 1960s set piece (and the attention to detail is distracting and diversionary). But let's not get sidetracked on Mad Men, because that would be stupid.

No, what I really am most interested in right now is what is left out of the text in Goodnight Moon, because as you're probably aware, Moon features a young bunny rabbit (don't ask) saying goodnight to all the random shit in his (his?) room. I don't know why this makes it a smart book — it's certainly not "smarter" than Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, for example — but people really like this book.

I think what they like about it is the reason all well-done children's books are done well, which is that the language has some rhythm and cadence (think Dr. Seuss, because you probably haven't forgotten those). Because babies are dumb, I've noticed this is what they seem to glom on to. As an aside, it's funny how many children's books don't get this — a lot do, don't get me wrong, but so many are just pieces of shit. Without shit-talking too many children's books authors, some just really piss me off. There's one about a fucking pigeon, for example, that just plods along and is boring as all get out; and then the pictures suck, or rather the art work looks pretty to hipster parents but leaves babies cold, which makes the whole endeavor just about the most asinine, self-centered thing to do — write a children's book that a child won't read. Those people need to seriously fuck the fuck off. Please.

Anyway, back to Goodnight Moon, which I suppose succeeds in part because it's inscrutable to adults and seemingly scrutable to children, which is to say, when you read it you're like "What the fuck just happened?" Because as near as you can tell when you read it, all that happens is that a bunny rabbit says goodnight to a bunch of shit in his (his?) room not once but several times.

"Goodnight Moon" Panel 8

But see, here's the thing that bothers me about the book — there are so many things that the bunny rabbit — and let's be clear, is it even a bunny rabbit? Does an anthropomorphized bunny count as a bunny rabbit? — so many things that he (he?) omits, and omits in favor of stuff like "air" and "nobody," that you're kind of like, there's something odd here. And not "odd," but "odd" like this book is sneaking-messages-past-Nazi-code-crackers odd. Here's a list of those therein:

1) A sort of animal skin rug on the floor beside the bed. I don't know what kind of animal this would be; it sort of looks like a cross between a zebra and a tiger, or what happens when a zebra, tiger and bear have a sexual romp. Perhaps it's obvious why this item doesn't get said goodnight to: I don't know how it would sound, maybe something along the lines of, "Goodnight Zebra-Bear-Hybrid Rug." Or maybe Clement Hurd just correctly anticipated IKEA design.

2) Slippers next to the bed that look like Chuka-Uggs, as in "Goodnight Slippers That Look Like Three-Quarter Uggs."

3) A pile of logs by the fireplace, as in "Goodnight Logs, Goodnight Log Rack" . . .

4) Related, "Goodnight Fireplace Tools And Stand, But With Missing Fire Poker" . . .

5) And of course, the fireplace itself — including an active fire — which seems a little bit like an elephant in the room.

6) Except that there's an actual elephant in the room, or at least an elephant doll.

7) And then that brings us to "Goodnight Strange Naked Male Doll On The Bookshelf" . . .

8) And "Goodnight Giraffe Doll" . . .

9) Also, "Goodnight Strange Partially Clothed Female Doll On The Bookshelf" . . .

10) And speaking of which, there's a pretty large bookshelf there that escapes scrutiny, but whatever.

11) Except forget "whatever" because there's also this self-reflexive copy of Goodnight Moon sitting on the nightstand next to the telephone, which I've been meaning to bring up, actually, because what is a telephone doing in a child's room? The 1948 FCC Annual Report (page 89 in this .pdf) shows there to be 20,499,920 residential telephones in the United States in 1947 out of a population of roughly 144 million, meaning about one phone for every seven people. And you want to tell me that a fucking bunny rabbit has one of these things in his (his?) room? I call bullshit. Or is this not a "child's" room after all? Are his parents dead? Did the Nazis take them? The best thing about children's books is that it's perfectly acceptable to raise more questions than get answered. In a "normal" book, an editor would say something like "You can't distract a reader with a telephone without explaining what it's doing there" but this is a different kind of writing, I suppose.

12) Right, speaking of which: Nightstand.

13) Did I mention the billowy drapes? Or does "Goodnight Billowy Drapes" not have a ring to it?

14) "Goodnight Woven Area Rug."

15) I could talk about the picture of the bunny fishing for another bunny next to a felled tree, but the whole idea sort of creeps me the fuck out.

16) And finally, the mantle holds two items next to one of the clocks that I honestly don't understand what they are. Perhaps urns for the ashes of the bunny's dead rabbit parents? I'd call them candlesticks but they really don't look like candlesticks. Maybe just "Goodnight Mantle Decor"?

Next up, an evaluation of the political subtexts of Caps For Sale, followed by a critical appreciation of Sandra Boynton.

Posted: December 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing, The Cult Of Domesticity | Tags: , , , , , , ,