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11 Fascinating Facts About Goodnight Moon

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Goodnight Moon, a deceptively simple children’s book that falls somewhere between a going-to-sleep narrative and a lullaby, will turn 68 later this year—and yet it remains one of the most universal cultural references even all these decades later. Here are a few things you might not have known about Margaret Wise Brown's sparse classic. 

1. Goodnight Moon's style reflects real childhood semantics.

Brown was born in 1910 to moderately wealthy but distant and bickering parents. She and her siblings (an older sister, Roberta, and a younger brother, Benjamin) spent their childhood at various boarding schools, and despite her father's concern that education would be wasted on the girls, all three went to college. Brown attended Hollins College in Virginia, where she enjoyed the social life and athletics but struggled to find herself academically. She graduated in 1932 and moved back to New York to live with her parents, dividing her time between various sports and day jobs.

Three years later, when she was 25 and still searching for a career, Brown enrolled in Bank Street’s Cooperative School for Student Teachers. It would prove to be a life-altering experience. Founded by visionary educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the school's teachers, psychologists, and researchers worked in an actual nursery school to study early childhood development. The adults at Bank Street were encouraged to take copious notes on the semantics and language styles used by young children. "They tell me stories and I write them down. Amazing,” Brown wrote to her college professor and mentor, Marguerite Hearsey.

One of Bank Street's early ground-breaking revelations in children's speech patterns was Mitchell's observation that "communication is not the earliest impulse that leads to the use of language." Instead, young kids were more interested in the "rhythm, sound quality and patterns of sound." Brown certainly understood this fact. Her work at the Bank Street Writers Laboratory showed a particular flair for rhythmic language that she would later use to hypnotic effect in Goodnight Moon. “Probably she has the most consistent and genuine interest in language of the group, perhaps of all our students. Her product, though slight, always shows sensitivity to form, sound and rhythm,” Mitchell wrote in one evaluation.

2. Goodnight Moon represented a new kind of children's literature: The "here-and-now."

In the 1930s, most children's literature was still firmly stuck in the 19th century, and consisted of moralizing fables or fairytales set in faraway lands and distant ages. Then, Bank Street and Lucy Mitchell started a new tradition: The so-called "here-and-now," which featured modern, urban settings and stories that would reflect a child’s actual existence. Young children, they believed, didn't need fantasy—daily routines were still new and exciting and in need of further exploration. Goodnight Moon deals explicitly with the "here and now" of a child's bedtime—all the physical items that make up a bedroom from telephones to socks with a focus on the single, simple act of saying "goodnight."

3. Brown was a successful writer long before Goodnight Moon.

After Mitchell enlisted Brown to assist her on later editions of the anthology/textbook, The Here and Now Story Book—which had been first published in 1923 but found greater success in later editions—she recommended that Brown serve as editor of a new publishing house, launched by William Scott in 1938, dedicated to experimental children’s literature. There, Brown wielded a vast amount of influence over the literary world (and an ability to publish even her most outlandish projects—like a book bound in real rabbit fur!). She also wrote dozens of books—so many that she used multiple pen names to avoid flooding the market with releases bearing her name—that helped popularize "here-and-now" storytelling and paved the way for Goodnight Moon in 1947.

4. Goodnight Moon was written quickly and edited slowly.

In 1942, Brown's publishing house put out A Child's Good Night Book, with a repetitive structure and sleepy sentiments that foreshadowed Goodnight Moon. Several years later, in 1946, LIFE writer Bruce Bliven Jr. visited Brown at her house in Maine (which she called "The Only House"), and described her writing process this way:

The first draft of a Brown book is usually written in wild, enthusiastic haste, in lost unintelligible soft pencil on whatever scraps of paper are available; the backs of grocery bills, shopping lists, old envelopes. “I finish the rough draft in 20 minutes,” Miss Brown says, “and then I spend two years polishing." She is currently polishing 23 books more or less simultaneously.

Among the books Brown was polishing when Bliven visited her was Goodnight Moon. Bliven even accompanied Brown to one of the final editorial meetings for the book with her Harper publisher and close friend, Ursula Nordstrom, where they mostly discussed how well the pictures fit the text.

5. The illustrations feature some last-minute edits.

Brown’s close friend and frequent collaborator, Clement Hurd—who also illustrated her classic Runaway Bunny—is responsible for the stark, saturated, and slightly absurdist illustrations in Goodnight Moon. When Brown first sent the manuscript to Hurd, she included very few instructions, but did enclose a copy of Goya's Boy in Red for inspiration. Without much direction, it took Hurd three attempts to get the outlandish size and flatness of the room just as Brown imagined it. And still, there were a number of last-minute alterations: A framed photo on the great green room's wall was altered to depict a scene from The Runaway Bunny; the Cow Jumping Over the Moon’s udder was made less anatomical to avoid offending librarians; and the child and the old lady are cast as bunnies simply because Hurd proved to be better at drawing bunnies than humans.

6. The New York Public Library Rejected Goodnight Moon.

Influential NYPL children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore was perhaps the highest profile opponent to Bank Street and Brown's here-and-now style. A champion of the fairytale, Moore often butted heads with Brown, and although she had retired by the time Goodnight Moon was published, her successor, Francis Sayers, stayed true to the party line and refused to put the book on shelves. An internal review at the library accused the book of being "an unbearably sentimental piece of work." The Library finally reversed its original decision and began stocking the book in 1973—26 years after it was first published.

7. Other reviews were kinder ...

"Rhythmic, drowsy phrases are set to pictures that complement them perfectly in this new go-to-sleep book for very little children…The sound of the words, the ideas they convey and the pictures combine to lull and reassure when bedtime and darkness come," read the brief New York Times review. The New Yorker called it a "hypnotic bedtime litany."

8. ... Especially over time.

Goodnight Moon sold more than 6000 copies in its first year on the shelves, but in the years that followed, sales averaged just 1500 copies annually. Then, in the early 1950s, the book enjoyed a sudden and dramatic resurgence, selling 4000 in 1955, 8000 in 1960, and 20,000 in 1970. By 2000, total sales topped out at more than 11 million. The book, Writer's Almanac said, became a "word-of-mouth best-seller." A glowing mention in "Child Behavior"—a syndicated parental-advice column that appeared in newspapers across the U.S. in 1953—also helped. It praised the book, saying, "It captures the two-year-old so completely that it seems almost unlawful that you can hypnotize a child off to sleep as easily as you can by reading this small classic."

9. Despite writing one of the most popular children's books of all time, Brown herself never had kids.

And, in fact, never married. In 1946, Brown told Bliven, “Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”

It's not an entirely surprising choice for a woman who never really settled down, and took long, solo trips around Europe. But it also may have been a cheerful and cunning deflection away from an unintended absence in her life. In a letter to the Hollins College Alumnae Quarterly in 1945, Brown mocked her more traditional classmates, saying defensively, “How many children have you? I have 50 books.”

10. The royalties were left to a young neighbor.

Just a few months before she died suddenly from an embolism following emergency surgery in Nice, France, the 42-year-old Brown—who at the time was engaged to a much younger man—drafted a will. In it, she left the royalties to Goodnight Moon (and 68 other titles) to a young boy named Albert Clarke. She had befriended his mother through a colleague at Bank Street and lived near the family on East 71st Street in Manhattan. (Clarke claims Brown is his biological mother, but there's no proof that supports his assertion.) Even before Clarke started receiving his inheritance—the first payment, made when he was 21, was $75,000—he had a few run-ins with the law. Ultimately, the constant windfall from Goodnight Moon's sales funded his bad and often illegal behavior—drug possession and attempts to kidnap his own children—setting him up for a life of crime and estrangement from the rest of his family.

11. Goodnight Moon's legacy endures.

In the years since it debuted, Goodnight Moon has never been out of the press long. In 1986, Baltimore's The Sun included it on a list of the best bedtime stories, and in 1997, the Chicago Tribune called it "one of the most enduring in children's literature." In 2009, a writer for The Oregonian published an op-ed, "Why I loathe Goodnight Moon"—because his kids wouldn't stop asking him to read it over and over. Two years later, a modern parody, Goodnight iPadwas published. And just last year, the New York Times's Opinion Pages published an ode to the book extolling not just how effectively it soothes sleep into restless children, but also the subtle and searing literary value—how it "subverts its own rules even as it follows them."

Additional Source: Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon.

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LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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