Monday, August 21, 2017

Do You Look Ridiculous If You Dance?

I was curious about how Goodnight Moon could be such a successful children’s book that it has sold millions of copies. It had no plot. It was repetitious and terribly simple. If its goal was to put toddlers to sleep, that was one thing, but I thought books were to enrich and engage readers. 

Then I stumbled on an article a few of months ago, and there was my answer. Margaret Wise Brown had discovered that books for this age group had to be about their own world, not one manufactured by an adult writer. Fantasy was great for older readers, but not those pre-schoolers who might even be confused by it. She’d discovered that for her readers “. . .the pleasure of language lies less in what it communicates than in its sound and rhythm.” [Amy Crawford,, January 26, 2017] 

"In the great green room
There was a telephone
and a red balloon
And a picture of–
The cow jumping over the moon. . ."

In her biography, The Great Green Room, Anne E. Fernald, writes that in Brown’s book there is “a love of color, joy in ordinary objects, repetition with unexpected variation.” [Anne E. Fernald, In the Great Green Room: Margaret Wise Brown and Modernism, November 17, 2015]

Then I began thinking that all of these elements are what I enjoy while reading. When a writer enables a vibrant color in words, that's exciting. I love seeing those azure seas or mountains soaring into black and turbulent clouds. 

Ordinary objects place me in a setting. Even if it's sci-fi and the world builder has created something that's not of this time and place, that object helps me "be" in the story. The neoprene wetsuit from Dune. The powered exoskeleton from Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Remember those ordinary object from the future? They were central to the stories, and I saw them clearly while I devoured the stories. 

And who doesn't love unexpected variation? Those surprising turns of words can be as exciting as a plot twist.

Gertrude Stein, who happened to be one of Brown’s favorite writers, appeals to older readers but using these three same techniques. Here’s some of Stein’s prose. Notice the "joy" in it, the ordinary things she refers to, and the "unexpected variation and repetition." So many of her words sing to you. A lot of grown-ups could use a good song after a day of being a grown-up.

“You look ridiculous if you dance
You look ridiculous if you don't dance
So you might as well dance.” Gertrude Stein

Everyone has a style, but sometimes writers can "borrow" a technique and play with it to see if it enhances their work. Evidently, that's exactly what Margaret Wise Brown did, and it worked--very well.

And so thank you and Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Miss Brown. Goodnight, Gertrude Stein. 


Christine Rains said...

I've never looked at it that way, and it wasn't quite that long ago I was reading books like Goodnight Moon to my son. Ordinary objects in stories that are key to the plot thrill me too. Color nabs me as well. Amazing how these are still important to adult readers.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I knew repetitive language is important in pre-school books. I'm amazed at the way my adult children can still quote some of those early books.

cleemckenzie said...

I was at a book event yesterday when this book came up, and one person said they never understood how it could be such a success. He pointed out the very reasons I've posted here: repetitious and terribly simple. I had the answers. He was kind of surprised. I love research. It can make you appear smart. :-)

Beth Camp said...

I've read GOOD NIGHT, MOON aloud to my two grandchildren and notice that though the words are simple and repetitive, there's a kind of sonorous flow that captivates those pre-school non-readers -- something about the colors and objects that are familiar (and Gramie's voice). The little ones point to the red balloon, the little house in the big room, the stockings in a row as we read together, making the whole process of reading aloud interactive. Our goal as writers, readers, and parents is to invite children into the story and hopefully instill in them a love of books. The five-year-old still asks me to read GOOD NIGHT MOON now and then. Hooray for writing, as you point out, that really reaches pre-readers!

Julia Thorley said...

What an interesting thought. Repetition in children's books is there for them - but it makes them dull to read aloud for the hundredth time!

Pat Hatt said...

Repeat, repeat and repeat some more. Good for a win at any shore.

H.R. Bennett said...

It's kind of funny you mention this because Goodnight Moon is what I kind of always imagine the best children's book to be. Not necessarily plot drive or story focused but sound and feel. You NEED someone to read it. You need to hear the flow of the language. The up and down and soothing sounds.

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Thanks so much for this, Lee. You've helped me to see how it works. I've wondered about some children's books as well. Great insight!

Tyrean Martinson said...

I love that you did research on this and I like what you found - although these are the kinds of things I need to work on in my writing. Thanks for the inspiration!