Thursday, July 10, 2008
WHO IS THE "QUIET OLD LADY"?
WANTED: INFORMATION ON THIS UNIDENTIFIED “OLD LADY”
LAST ADDRESS: THE GREAT GREEN ROOM
PARENTS: DNA TESTS REVEAL SHE IS THE CHILD OF MARGARET WISE BROWN AND CLEMENT HURD
NOTABLE CHARACTERISTICS: KNITS. ROCKS. UTTERS THE PHRASE “HUSH” WITH GREAT FREQUENCY
IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION REGARDING HER IDENTITY, PLEASE CONTACT SGT. U. NORDSTROM OF THE MISSING PERSONS AND RUNAWAY BUNNY BUREAU
A couple days ago I read the new young adult novel THE LOSER’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE by A.E. Cannon, an enjoyably slick story about the romantic entanglements of several Salt Lake City teenagers in the days leading up to a big Midsummer Night’s party. Though the characters are familiar (the worrisome boy trying to impress a beautiful blonde; the nice girl in love with her unaware male best friend; the-science-geek-next-door) and the plot is sitcom-lite, Cannon keeps the multi-voiced narrative moving at a fast pace and does a great job with the novel’s “moon” motif; the science-geek-next-door gazes at the lunar surface through a telescope, characters quote Edward Lear’s “And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon,” and each chapter is marked by an illustration of a waxing moon.
Cannon's book also includes a riff on Margaret Wise Brown’s GOODNIGHT MOON. Science geek Quark (short for Quentin Andrews O’Rourke) recalls, “My mother
used to read Goodnight Moon to me when I was little. I used to love to hear her low voice as I stared out my bedroom window.” Quark quotes the book’s familar opening lines (“In the great green room / There was a telephone / And a red balloon / And a picture of-- / The cow jumping over the moon...”) and then adds, “It’s such a comforting book. Just a bunny and his mother in a roomful of familiar things. No surprises. Just things the way the bunny expects them to be. Just things they way they’re supposed to be.”
Well, that pulled me up short.
A bunny and his “mother”? I didn’t know the female rabbit in the long dress and apron was supposed to be the sleepy bunny’s mother! I quickly grabbed a copy of GOODNIGHT MOON from the shelf and looked it up. No, the book only refers to her as “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’.” Surely if she was his mother, the book would refer to her as “Mama” or “Mom” or “Mother.” It wouldn’t refer to her as an “old lady,” would it?
But it did get me wondering: exactly WHO is this "quiet old lady" sitting in the great green room whispering "hush"?
I decided to do a little searching around on the internet and discovered that Quark is not alone in viewing the quiet old lady as the bunny’s mother. Several other sites also refer to the two characters as a bunny and his mother.
I also found other sources -- including reviews for a recent musical version of GOODNIGHT MOON -- that believe the old lady is the bunny’s grandmother.
Personally, I always felt she was some kind of babysitter or housekeeper charged with taking care of the little bunny. I think the long apron drew me to that conclusion; Julie Andrews wore something similar in Mary Poppins.
Then I saw the movie SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, in which a crazed Kim Stanley kidnaps a little girl, keeps her in a darkened room, and puts on a nurse’s outfit so the little girl will believe she’s in a hospital. ...That ALMOST made me wonder if the quiet old lady had sinister motives for watching over the little bunny so intently. I mean, he is pretty groggy. ...And, hey, what’s in that bowl of mush anyway?
Looking for definitive answers, I consulted Leonard Marcus’s excellent biography, MARGARET WISE BROWN : AWAKENED BY THE MOON. He tells us how GOODNIGHT MOON came to be written and published, but offers no explanation for the quiet old lady’s identity. I did learn some interesting trivia about the book, though. Upon publication, it was not even deemed worthy of review by the Horn Book Magazine. And the New York Public Library rejected it as an “unbearably sentimental piece of work” and didn’t order its first copy until 1973!
But back to the nameless old lady. I’ve come to the conclusion that she functions as a sort of Rorschach Test for the reader. It’s not surprising that Quark from LOSER’S GUIDE views her as the bunny’s mother: his own mother has been absent for most of his life. Whether we think she’s a mother...grandmother...babysitter... whether we find her cozy and comforting...authoritative and no-nonsense...or even slightly sinister mostly speaks about our own complicated psyches and personal issues.
It also strikes me that fretting about her name and status is probably something only adults would do. The millions of kids who fall asleep each night to the words of GOODNIGHT MOON never question it. They know exactly who she is: she’s simply the quiet old lady who whispers "hush" -- and that’s all they need to know.