What’s in a book?

Installation view of ​Goodnight House​ at Fort Makers, New York. Featuring hand-painted curtains by Naomi S. Clark; painting by Marcel Alcalá within a frame by Nick DeMarco; a ceramic mantlepiece clock and urns by Keith Simpson; hand-carved wooden rabbit by Noah Spencer; and a hearth tapestry by Liz Collins. Photograph by Joe Kramm, courtesy of Fort Makers.

A children’s book reaches iconic proportions when it maintains a lasting intergenerational admiration. Several well read children’s books have been a staple of the early childhood canon for decades, one of which is Goodnight Moon written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. Goodnight Moon is a bedtime story that tells the tale of an anthropomorphic bunny whose bedtime ritual includes saying ‘goodnight’ to all the objects, beings and environments in and around its room.

Many of us can likely recite this book verbatim (or at least the gist of it). Picking it up at any age typically inspires joy and comfort, which is why it remains a popular bedtime tale. However, the book was not immediately thought of as the iconic piece of literature that it is today. Goodnight Moon was first considered overly sentimental by Anne Carroll Moore, who was the first children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and ensured that the book would not enter the library’s circulation (other libraries followed suit). Moore’s seminal influence within library and literary circles was so renowned that her critique caused the book to initially flop.

The background for Goodnight Moon to be taken out of circulation is steeped in pedagogical discourse and debate. Moore was revolutionary in her approach to library science and early childhood literacy. At the New York Public Library, she set up the Central Children’s Room and acquired a significant collection of literature for children of all ages and backgrounds. She was particularly adamant that any child who could sign their name should have a library card and check out books. Moore also oversaw the library’s storytime program, which still is in effect today (although it has shifted to a virtual platform for the time being). Furthermore, Moore trained other librarians and prompted them to go throughout the five boroughs of New York City to influence the city’s diverse groups of children on the importance of reading (see: Kois, 2020).

While many of Moore’s actions reflect contemporary librarian methodologies, she considered the student-centered progressive educational movement to be too laissez faire. The new wave of educational activism was based on early childhood research at the Cooperative School for Student Teachers, known today as the Bank Street College of Education. The college’s founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, influenced by John Dewey’s concept of humane and rational experiential learning, formed a curriculum around the study children, in order “to discover what kind of environment best suits their learning and growth, then create that environment and train adults to maintain it” (quoted from the history page on Bank Street College’s website). In addition to leading the charge for more effective educational frameworks, Mitchell wrote a children’s book called Here and Now Story Book (1921), which is recognized as a strong counterpart to the school’s educational curricula. The book epitomizes the pedagogical concepts of whole child learning and presents new material in conjunction with young children’s prior knowledge, cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. In 1935, Margaret Wise Brown became a student at the Cooperative School for Student Teachers. She started to write children’s literature that was connected to school’s approach to constructivist education, where learning is actively constructed by students and determined by experiences in the real-world. Goodnight Moon is an epitome of this philosophy.

Moore was more conservative in her approach to how teachers should teach and children should learn. Her viewpoints were at odds with Mitchell, Brown and others at the Cooperative School for Student Teachers. According to Betsy Bird, a contemporary children’s librarian and blogger, Brown’s writing stemmed from “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands….She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them” (Bird quoted in Kois, 2020). This conflict of ideologies is likely to have played a significant role in Brown’s book being banned by Moore.

Sales and readership of Goodnight Moon eventually picked up in the late 1950s and 60s. The book was finally added to the New York Public Library’s circulation on its 25 anniversary in 1972. The ensuing popularity of the book has been a catalyst for it to be re-imagined through several different media sources featuring extended or alternative narratives and interactive experiences. It has been spoofed by pop and visual culture platforms (including the Animaniacs, Mad Magazine and Goodnight Dune). The traditional narrative content has even been amended to reflect the ongoing global pandemic and our collective turn to virtual and distance communication (see: Goodnight Zoom).

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time discussing the other half of Goodnight Moon, illustrator Clement Hurd. Hurd was an American artist and illustrator who studied architecture at Yale University before going to Paris and studying painting under the famed modern artist, Fernand Leger. After France, Hurd embarked on a career as a commercial artist, during which he met Brown and became a frequent collaborator on her books. His simplified treatment of subject matter and scenic environments, as well as his palette with which he painted contrasting areas of pure, bold color, blur the line between illustration and modern art.

The aesthetic influence of Hurd’s illustrations and Brown’s quotidian and accessible storytelling, inspired members of Fort Makers, a contemporary design studio and artist collective, to create an installation that lets viewers experience and interact with handmade objects that are seemingly out of the pages of Goodnight Moon. An artful array of ceramics, wood carvings, textiles, candles, moody lighting and framed paintings echoing Hurd’s style, portray the book in a manner that had not yet been realized. The installation, which Fort Makers titled Goodnight House, is on view at their showroom on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Upon entering the gallery we are whimsically greeted by a baby blue ceramic mantlepiece clock and urns by Keith Simpson; a hearth tapestry a circular ring rug and an upholstered bed by Liz Collins; a rocking chair, stools, a bookcase and a yellow cloud-shaped bedside table designed by CHIAOZZA with a dollhouse nightlight on top; an ottoman and bedside rug by Tamika Rivera depicting Diosa Luna, the Taíno moon goddess; Marcel Alcalá‘s paintings of nursery rhymes and re-interpretations of the book’s illustrations, held within papier-mâché picture frames by Nick DeMarco; Goodnight Moon character-inspired candles by Janie Korn; mosaic-like candles by Crying Clover; a hand-carved wooden rabbit and a black balloon sconce by Noah Spencer; ceramic dinner bowls by Lauren Elder; ceramic cups, mugs and bowls by Shino Takeda; and ceramic table lamps by Samuel Harvey. The gallery walls are painted in the signature vivid green color that Hurd used throughout the book, which along with hand-painted curtains by Naomi S. Clark, and elicit a sense of being enveloped in the mood of the bedtime narrative. While inside this dreamlike environment, it is hard to believe that we are actually in a gallery in downtown New York City.

Installation view of Goodnight House at Fort Makers, New York. Featuring two paintings by Marcel Alcalá with frames by Nick DeMarco; a dollhouse light, wooden cubes, hand-carved wooden rabbit and black balloon sconce by Noah Spencer; a ring rug, upholstered bed and textile bedding by Liz Collins; a bedside rug by Tamika Rivera; and a cloud table by CHIOZZA. Photograph by Joe Kramm Courtesy of Fort Makers.

It is rare for an exhibition in New York’s fine art scene to be something that holds significance and relevance for intergenerational audiences. Just like the book provides inspiration and comfort to many people at bedtime, the installation does that for the community by becoming a space that evokes warmth, compassion and safety. This feeling is especially apropos to all of us during these difficult and uncertain times. Goodnight House is a worthwhile aesthetic experience because it shows how playful learning, collaboration and childlike curiosity have lifelong benefits on our social, emotional and cognitive well-being. This effect is not lost on Noah Spencer, one of the collective’s co-founders, who says “Since the advent of kindergarten, artists and designers have been absorbed with the power of play and the role it has in fostering creativity in both children and adults.”

The fluidity in which Goodnight Moon‘s narrative has been shared, appropriated and re-presented, is indicative of how experiential learning through play and exploring materials that are integral to everyday moments provides profound common and unique understandings about the world we live in. In the forward to Here and Now Storybook, Caroline Pratt, a major modern progressive educational reformer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrote: “Surely no school would advise giving classical literature without the setting which would make the stories and verse understandable. It is a question whether the fact of desirable literature has not in the past and does not still govern our whole school program more than many educators would be willing to admit. What seems to be more logical is to set up that which is psychologically sound so far as we know it and create if need be a new literature to help support the structure.”

Goodnight House is a physical embodiment of Pratt’s ideological statement. We learn by making unfamiliar or new knowledge relevant and relatable to our own circumstances. Therefore, we need environments and methods for contextualizing familiar and common experiences that will enable and empower us to acquire new knowledge independently through inquiry and experimentation. Art-centered educational settings like Goodnight House give viewers, both young and old, an opportunity to embody the creative pedagogical impact of storytelling. It does this by welcoming us into an intimate environment and prompting playful and joyous responses that support creative and critical thinking, so we can express what we discover in our own ways.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bank Street College of Education’s Occasional Paper Series is an online forum for pedagogical writing and discourse that builds upon the school’s progressive educational legacy.

Bird, Elizabeth. “The Quintessential Librarian Stereotype: Wrestling With the Legacy of Anne Carroll Moore.” School Library Journal, 4 March 2019. https://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2019/03/04/the-quintessential-librarian-stereotype-wrestling-with-the-legacy-of-anne-carroll-moore/

Kois, Dan. “How One Librarian Tried to Squash Goodnight Moon.” Slate, 13 January 2020. https://slate.com/culture/2020/01/goodnight-moon-nypl-10-most-checked-out-books.html

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