Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writer's Craft and Goodnight Moon

Well-written children's books, particularly those for the very young, can often provide the most valuable lessons in writer's craft. Did you see Aimee Bender's piece for "The Draft" blog of The New York Times, "What Writers Can Learn from 'Goodnight, Moon'?" It was also on page 9 of the Review section of Sunday's paper. Bender dissects the book spread-by-spread.

Structure is something I enjoy exploring as both a reader and a writer. I'm fascinating by how much hinges on the structure, how a book can become so many other books simply by changing the organizing structure of the text in ways large and small, obvious and subtle. When discussing the book's move from the bedroom to the stars in the sky, "goodnight nobody," Bender writes, "[f]or writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure."  How do we teach young writers to "move around in" and "float out of" structure as they write?

Understanding the structural choices a writer makes is one of the essential pivot points as one moves from reader to writer, whether it's a conscious or unconscious pivot. Young children do it all the time as they unconsciously adopt the structures and motifs of stories they love, often choosing to encode before they decode. They have absorbed structures of writing they have heard and use them in their own work. As children get older, they can adopt those structures in more specific and conscious ways.

Over a decade ago, I was teaching a course in children's literature to high school seniors, students I once taught as 8th or 9th graders. So many of them were able to acquire the meta-cognitive thinking strategies about reading, writing, and literary analysis at a more sophisticated level when first working with (in many cases, deceptively) simple texts. They could then pivot off of those experiences to work with more "age appropriate" texts.

All of us have a lot to learn about writing from Goodnight Moon. I'm teaching my nonfiction class this weekend, and while Goodnight Moon is fiction, I may use Bender's column as another entry point into talking about discussing text structure, particularly those at work in nonfiction picture books. Let me know if you do, too. 


  1. I particularly love the Goodnight Nobody spread which, Leonard Marcus believes, links MWB with the avant-garde artists of her time -- John Cage and his 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, Rauschenberg's white canvasses -- I will use your post as a jumping off point to talk about structure in my post tomorrow

  2. It especially like the discussion of "surprise," what I think you are referring to as "floating out of structure." When literature is not totally predictable, it is pleasantly surprising. This can be as true for nonfiction as fiction.