A few years ago I stumbled across an article written by a blogger with a young child, who asked the simple question "Why does my kid love ‘Goodnight Moon’ so much?"
"I mean," she continued, "C'mon. The colors are garish, there's no story and all it does is name everything in this really weird room. And I have to read it 5 TIMES EVERY NIGHT!!!"
I've always loved this book, and her comments surprised me. It made me pause and wonder, "Just why is this book so popular?" A quick check online told me that this little book, written by Margaret Wise Brown and published in 1947 by Harper & Brothers, has sold close to 50 million copies and has been translated into at least 13 languages.
As a parent who also read this book over and over to my own children, I can name at least two powerful reasons for the continued popularity and timeless value of this book: naming and ritual. These two aspects are why young children (and the young at heart) love it so much.
The ability to recognize and name things not only marks a stage in development, it's also a sign of a healthy human psyche. It's one of the jobs Adam was given in the Garden of Eden.
The book of Genesis says:
2:19] So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
[2:20] The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
Since this naming took place before the fall of Adam and Eve, we may be sure that Adam named things well, fully and appropriately. In other words, the name of the object revealed two things: its nature and its meaning. Although only Adam (and later Eve) was made in the image of God, everything God created revealed certain aspects of him. For example, dogs are symbols of loyalty. They don't just learn to be loyal, as if it's something they put on over their true nature, loyalty IS their nature.
So when Adam was naming things, like Bunnykins in "Goodnight Moon’’, he was understanding and revealing the nature and meaning of the created thing before him. That same understanding is why this story still resonates. This little, simple book clearly shows that everything has a value, from the "comb and the brush and the bowl full of mush" to the "quiet old lady, whispering 'hush'." Because everything has a value, it must also have a proper use. The little bunny looks around him and names the items he sees, and places them all in their proper place - within the great green room, the place of childhood, the place of a softly burning hearth, of the wise, gentle woman watching over him, of the food in the bowl, and the red balloon, symbolizing all the wonderful possibilities of what is yet to come. All of these things are named and addressed individually. To little bunnykins, the world is not necessarily a place of chaos and confusion. Rather, there is warmth and love, where things can be named, their value appreciated, and their place and use understood. It is a tremendously comforting and hopeful view of the world, full of color and life and peace.
The young bunny goes through a ritual each night as he prepares for sleep. He likely names the exact same items in a very similar manner every time he goes to bed. We naturally create rituals in our everyday lives, and Catholics participate in religious rituals when we worship, especially at Mass. Rituals are repeated actions, combined with repeated words, that express or point to a deeper meaning. In this case, Bunny’s bedtime ritual is telling him that it is time to sleep, that his world has entered a different time than daylight, so a different response is needed. Learning basic rituals like this helps children to later understand sacred rituals, which involve God and worship.
Scripture is full of examples of sacred rituals, when God directs the words and actions for particular purposes. In the Bible, as at Mass, every word and action conveys meaning and is formative, setting the community apart from the world, while simultaneously drawing it together.
Like our little bunny, we are also called to turn from chaos and confusion, to notice and name what is in our world, so that, like Adam, we can truly understand and value the order that was "in the beginning" and try to recapture it in our lives. Especially today, when we hear that words and actions have no inherent meaning, it is important that we understand the role of rituals and help our children to learn them.