New phase of Goodnight Moon
NEW YORK — The words are like an incantation, a spell — intoxicating for children and mercifully unannoying for parents, even if you’re reading for the 100 time.
To hear the opening line of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (“In the great green room”) is to embark on a Proustian reverie about a calm place with the lights turned low and a child snuggling sleepily in your arms. It seems as complete as a children’s book can be.
But soon there will be Good Day, Good Night, a previously unpublished book by Brown that can be read as part variation on, part expansion of, Goodnight Moon. Consisting of two fragments written in 1950 and put away after Brown’s sudden death two years later, then combined by an editor a few years ago, the book is being brought out in October by HarperCollins Children’s Books, with original art by the author-illustrator Loren Long.
Good Day, Good Night is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight Moon, which did not sell well during Brown’s lifetime, finding its extraordinary success only years later.
But the theme and cadences will be instantly familiar to anyone who knows the earlier work. While Goodnight Moon takes place inside a house on a single evening, the new story follows its young-bunny protagonist as he wakes up, goes outside and greets numerous things, then heads back home and bids it all good night.
Is the new book even necessary, when Goodnight Moon — written in 1944 and still in print with 32 million copies sold in various formats worldwide — does its job so well?
“We cherish and respect Goodnight Moon and all of her writing, and you never want to do anything that is going to take away from that work,” Nancy Inteli, editorial director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said of Brown. “This felt to us that she built upon Goodnight Moon, that this was a natural next step.”
It’s not the only new or refurbished Brown book to pop up from HarperCollins recently. Last year, the publisher reissued Brown’s The Dead Bird and Christmas In The Barn, both with new art. Now, Good Day, Good Night will be the showpiece of another yearlong Brown rollout.
And as is so often the case with newly published work from long-deceased authors, there’s a complicated back story. It begins with the death of Brown, just 42 and at the peak of her career when she had a fatal embolism after an appendectomy in France.
An unconventional free spirit who combined a racy romantic life with an extraordinarily productive professional one, Brown was one of the most successful children’s authors of her time. Her best-known books include The Runaway Bunny, about overwhelming, unconditional parental love; and The Little Fur Family, a tiny-children’s story about some very sweet, very fuzzy animals.
Brown was a restless creator, endlessly experimenting with new approaches and new versions of the same idea, writing and writing until she got bored or got it right.
She left behind a great deal of material, in various states of completion. Some new stories were published after her death. Others were submitted to editors, rejected and put aside. One large collection of unpublished material made its way to the Westerly Public Library in Westerly, Rhode Island. Another ended up in a cedar trunk at Brown’s sister’s house in Jamaica, Vermont.
There matters stood, more or less, until 1990, when Amy Gary, a former Doubleday sales representative who had started a small publishing company, got a glimpse of what was in the trunk.
Gary bought licensing rights to the material from Brown’s sister, Roberta Brown Rauch, and set about trying to sell a number of works. This month HarperCollins brought out North, South, East, West, a previously unpublished picture book about a little bird who flies all over the place before coming home.
Meanwhile, Gary has written a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, In The Great Green Room, drawing on an earlier biography by Leonard S. Marcus and on material she found in Brown’s papers. The book, published in January by Flatiron Books, emphasises Brown’s unorthodox love life, including affairs with married men and women. Written in an unconventionally novelistic style, it has received lukewarm reviews.
Good Day, Good Night had its genesis in a 1950 letter from Brown to one of her editors that Gary came across several years ago at the Westerly library. In it, Brown describes plans for a book in which, Gary said, “the child goes to sleep with the same things they wake up with”.
Reading the letter, she continued, enabled her to see the connection between what had seemed to be two separate manuscripts — one about waking and one about going to sleep — in the trunk.
Putting the two parts together required her to do some editing, Gary said, while keeping in mind Brown’s possible intentions and “trying to remain as true as we could to what she wanted it to be”.
As for the title, “I worked with Margaret’s notes and the manuscript to develop” it, she said.
Marcus, the author of the earlier Brown biography, said he had not read Good Day, Good Night and did not want to comment on the specifics of Gary’s efforts, but that publishers risk diluting authors’ reputations by publishing too much, or lesser examples, of their work.
The most striking example in recent years is Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, which had been once deemed unpublishable and whose publication distressed many who had loved Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
In Brown’s case, her prolific output and the difficulty of sustaining the same standards of quality through multiple books present a challenge.
“Margaret Wise Brown published about 60 books in her lifetime, and more than 100 were in print 10 years after her death,” Marcus said. “Of those, maybe 15 or 20 are really top-notch.”
While even the lesser works have things to offer, “even within the body of work she published in her lifetime, there would have been some it would have been better to withhold”, added Marcus.
Speaking generally about the current atmosphere in children’s books publishing he said; “It’s a little sad to me that people who have produced memorable books become brands that have to be exploited to the last degree.”
Marcus also said that Rauch, Brown’s sister, had emphasised to him that she did not want any of Brown’s new material changed before publication. Gary, for her part, said that she and Rauch, who died in 2001, had never had such a discussion.
“We did talk about endeavouring to remain as true as possible to Margaret’s original manuscripts, which was a guiding principle I have followed in overseeing these publications,” Gary said.
Still, Good Day, Good Night has a lovely and simple story that is bound to appeal to small children, even if it doesn’t match the seamless rhythm and honey-smooth story progression of Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing can.