Goodnight Songs: Margaret Wise Brown’s Discovered Poetry, Illustrated and Set to Music

Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Songs

It reads like spellbinding literature itself: a beloved children’s book author, known for her unfettered lifestyle and magical perspective, departs this world at a young age and leaves us with such enduring classics as Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and Little Fur Family. Decades pass—with her fans wishing she’d written more—until one serendipitous day, her previously unpublished poetry is discovered in an old trunk in her sister’s barn. These lullabies are then put to folk music, with each song illustrated by a different award-winning children’s book artist, culminating in a picture book/CD combo of some of the most beautiful drawings, songs, and poems the world of children’s literature has ever seen.

Goodnight Songs, by Margaret Wise Brown, is being released this week and is destined to become a new classic. Our house was lucky enough to get an early copy, which arrived on our front porch—mid-snowstorm, no less—and was an immediate hit with both me and my two boys (ages seven and two). Seeing that it’s a collection of bedtime melodies, this is saying something—something BIG. For starters, the going-to-sleep ritual is never popular around here. And music? Well…usually, the louder the better with these fellows. Not to mention, the poetry within the book and the drawings that accompany it are devoid of Legos and zombies and bulldozers. So, the success of this compilation (with two rowdy insomniacs) speaks to its deep and deliberate beauty—there is, truly, something for everyone within.

For starters, the twelve illustrations (which correspond to the twelve poems) are rich and varied. Some are softly rendered with gentle brushstrokes, others are bright and bold, while a few offer the sort of tiny detail that sets a child’s mind off on its own journey. My personal favorites are Linda Bleck’s art for Goat on the Mountain and Melissa Sweet’s for The Secret Song. These selections offer lots for kids to look at and investigate, but I feel they also most closely capture Brown’s love of whimsy. Maybe it’s because Bleck previously illustrated Brown’s The Moon Shines Down, or because Sweet took a ferry out to the author’s island home in Maine for inspiration. Whatever the case, all the drawings are enchanting, with a few leaning more toward the original magic of Clement Hurd than others.

The accompanying music, provided by folk singers Tom Proutt and Emily Gary, is calming without being dull, and appeals to both grownups and kids alike. Proutt and Gary employ lots of different instruments—from mandolins to slide trombones to high-strung electric guitars—which keeps things from getting repetitive or too darling. It’s a little mellow rock, a little bluegrass, and it’s the sort of versatile CD (like Jack Johnson’s Curious George Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies) that parents will be tempted to steal for themselves when the kids are at school.

As for the poetry, it feels wonderfully, authentically Margaret Wise Brown. Though full of fanciful ideas and imagery, Brown’s work never gets to be “too much” for kids to digest. Her specialty has always been simple words and phrases, rocking repetition, and a youthful perspective—a kid’s-eye view, so to speak. These new poems are no different, and employ the familiar language and lilt of her classics.

It’s truly cause for celebration in the literary world that Margaret Wise Brown has returned. This beloved and prolific author, who entertained and honored readers with her numerous works, has a new book on the shelves for the first time in almost 70 years. This time, though, it’s not just her words that delight the child inside all of us, but the spirit behind them: this book is an ode to her, to “Brownie,” the spry adventurer who spent her first royalty check on an entire vendor’s cart of flowers. She knew the way to a youthful heart. Goodnight Songs is proof that she lives on.

What’s your child’s favorite bedtime book?