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The Horn Book is a bunch of liars; or: YOU go the eff to sleep

Goodnight MoonLook, I love Goodnight Moon just as much as the next parent. The text’s gentle cadence and reassuring repetition. The play of light and shadow across the great green room. And that achingly beautiful and mysterious ending: “Goodnight stars / Goodnight air / Goodnight noises / Everywhere.”

My children love it, too. They love filling in the lines (“Goodnight cow jumping over the…”) and poring over the pictures. But do they care about it as a bedtime book — as the bedtime book? They do not, in the same way they don’t care about all the other books that send their characters gently off to dreamland in such a way that real-life children might do the same.

A Horn Book Guide Online database search of the word “bedtime” brings over 1200 results. Many of these are wonderful books. Take the Russell Hoban classic Bedtime for Frances (illustrated by Garth Williams). That crafty little badger does everything she can to avoid sleep, to the consternation of her parents (she even gets threatened with a spanking!). By the end, though, she’s visiting dreamland.

Same goes for that sassy red dinosaur in Bob Shea’s Dinosaur vs. Bedtime. That little guy is a ball of energy, defeating everything in his path. But all that romping and stomping tuckers him out at the end, and: “Bedtime wins!”

The tone of Jonathan Bean’s soothing At Night couldn’t be more different, but the result is the same. A little girl who can’t sleep goes outside on the roof of her building where the gentle air eventually does the trick. Japanese import Hannah’s Night by Komako Sakai, about a girl who wakes up in the middle of the night and has a series of small adventures in her home while the rest of her family is asleep, is also a gorgeous book, calm and serene. Do these books’ powers of suggestion make my kids go the eff to sleep? Nope.

Book reviewers love to claim that calm, soothing stories such as these are “sure to lull children to sleep.” In fact, I have probably said so myself, because I so much want it to be true. Forget that stupid rabbit that wouldn’t fall asleep – if you can find a book that you love reading aloud that will also work its soporific magic on kids, you’ve got a golden ticket.

The act of reading together at bedtime may signal sleep, but for my kids it seems to be less about content and more about ritual. Does Goodnight Moon make them sleepier than something jazzier, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom for example? You’d think so, but in our case not so much. Any insomniac will tell you that you can’t force yourself asleep and that trying will only make it worse.

So, don’t expect a bedtime miracle from Goodnight Moon or any other of those lull-your-children-to-sleep book, no matter what well-meaning (and likely well-rested!) reviewers might say. But do enjoy the time together, and maybe you will find that legendary one-in-a-million sleepy-time tome. One can always dream.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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