What we can learn about the ‘innocence of children’ from Goodnight Moon

So here’s something. I received a link to the following article today (thanks cuz); a submission to the New York Times Draft blog for writers.

What Writers Can Learn From ‘Goodnight Moon’

Though I was certainly an English major, I’ve actually never, believe it or not, fully analysed an entire critique of Goodnight Moon before. And this piece, focused on writing technique, spoke to me as a writer – there are definitely interesting technique takeaways in there.

But today specifically, I took something else away too. It had actually already been on my mind. And that related to the perceived ‘innocence’ of children.

Here’s what the author, Aimee Bender, has to say about the way Goodnight Moon differs from other children’s books:

It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable.

This had me circling back to what I, quite literally, woke up to this morning: my five-year-old son showing us a drawing he made of a boy, perhaps himself, choosing shelter during a rocket attack.

With everything going on lately – in the world, downed planes, civil wars, massacres, and at home, rockets, air strikes, terrorist kibbutz plots, collateral damage – I’ve been wondering lately how much innocence really is lost from children. How much innocence they have in the first place.

Are children as innocent as we assume, and if not, should we be pretending so?

Around the world, millions of children lose their innocence a lot earlier than say, middle class Western kids. And that includes plenty of American kids who are homeless, poor, hungry, and trapped in a devastating lifestyle.

How much innocence is there, really? Is it, say, a shelter of sorts, from an eventuality? Is it the lucky few who even get to experience the so-called innocence?

Is it our own regret at reaching the threshold of adulthood, passing through it, and forever exposing ourselves to the world we’ve actually been living in the whole time?

Back to Goodnight Moon. What always bugged me about it is that it’s not smooth. It’s not neat. The author lays out the room, and then goes on with the goodnight chant, which is perfectly natural, but the contents of the chant don’t match up. The pages aren’t parallel.

What a surprise, then, to find that there is a blank page with “Goodnight nobody” out of nowhere, sharing a spread with “Goodnight mush.” What a surprise, then, that the story does not end with the old lady whispering “hush” but goes out the window into the night.

Goodnight Moon feels like it should be a tidy tale. It’s not – it’s bumpy. What you expect doesn’t actually happen.

Perhaps that is a piece of children’s literature that speaks truth to children who are supposedly ‘innocent’ or blank slates. In fact, a little bit of a bumpy ride might feel natural to a small child who hasn’t yet neatly summed up the world as good vs evil.

There’s been talk lately about how much to expose to our young kids, how far to go to protect their ‘innocence.’ I’m just not sure how much of that is a construct of the safe situations we were lucky to grow up in. In which, eventually, we too lost our innocence.

Kids, even living on the safest terms, don’t exist in a vacuum. And I reckon they’ve figured out long before we think they do that life isn’t a Disney movie. So what should we have them think in times of stress? When things get ‘real’?

If it’s real for us, surely it’s real for them?

What do you think?

Twilight: The highlights. But mostly the lowlights.

If I don’t get this off my chest soon, it’s going to haunt me forever and then I may need therapy and that will just make it all worse.

Disclaimer: I’m an avid reader. And I read anything. And when I say anything, I mean, I spent an entire Shabbat a month ago deeply engrossed in my brother’s copy of The Power Broker, a 1,000+ page text book about the rise and fall of New York City’s greatest and most controversial urban planner, Robert Moses. It was all I had in the house that I hadn’t yet read (fascinating, by the way).

So, yes, I read all four books of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It was peer pressure at first, which is how these things usually come to be. I’m a fantasy fan, though, and a major Harry Potter nut. And I felt the same skepticism about Harry Potter before I actually read it in 2000. So, teen-girl-screaming associations aside, it felt logical to give it a chance.

Here’s my problem with the story: There is so much potential there. So much. I suppose that’s the highlight – the potential. I so badly wanted to lean over to Stephenie and say, wait, why’d you stop here? Why not explain this? Why not go further here? Why keep it so simple there? So much potential to be a way more engaging, heart-wrenching, painfully delicious story.

But, it fell flat. Unfortunately for me, having sat through it all. What kept me going was hoping there’s be more somewhere. Even with fifty pages left to the series, knowing it was the last book she’d do, I hoped. I really hoped. Somehow, the pages would extend themselves. Somehow, this wouldn’t remain a cheap read.

But it did. The lowlights – well, they were everywhere.

The writing was sub-par. Yes, you can write a seemingly young-adult novel and not have it be sub-par. Harry Potter isn’t the best writing in the world – it’s the creative elements of the story that keep it engaging – but it still lived up to a certain level of expectation.

The characters were flat. 2D. Too perfect or too imperfect. Too simple or too fake-complex. No one had any real problems. Everything was a neat package, even if it was packed with vampire venom.

And, like I said, the story could have gone a lot deeper, carried us further, given us real joy and harsh pain. I don’t know why she left it so surface-level. I don’t know her as a writer other than here. But it sounded like a publisher said, here, do this, so she did it. Maybe that’s even what happened. What a shame.

It would be cool to have Robert Jordan (rest his soul) or Orson Scott Card or even JK Rowling take a shot at the same story and characters. Give it that oomph I expect out of fantasy.

I guess I assumed way too much going into it.

Well, in any case, I’d like to thank the people who lent me books one, two and four, and the airport Steimatsky clerk who didn’t seem to judge me when I bought book three in a fit of desperation (I don’t have to explain myself).