The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, December 19, 2006
THE BUNNY CODE: In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert
summarizes the subtext of Goodnight Moon:
The struggle between parent and child that is the explicit subject of so many bedtime stories is, in "Goodnight Moon" only implicit. Indeed, there's no parent on the scene. The story begins with the little rabbit, drawn with wonderful flatness by Clement Hurd, already in bed. It is seven o'clock. A few pages later, according to the blue clock on the mantelpiece and the yellow clock on the bed table, it is seven-twenty. Then it is seven-thirty, then seven-forty. When the "good-nighting" begins, it is not clear who is doing the speaking. The moon is rising, yet the light grows dimmer. The clocks tick on -- seven-fifty, eight o'clock.

A parent is bigger than a child, but still a person. He or she can be appealed to, as in "Bedtime for Frances," or even tricked, as in "Good Night, Gorilla." The arrangement in "Goodnight Moon" is completely uneven. Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn't stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to die. But we both have to.

I thought I had a knack for reading disturbing new messages into children's books, but I doff my hat to Ms. Kolbert. I'm not sure she's right that there's no parent on the scene -- the bunny's relationship to the Old Lady Whispering Hush is never clearly defined -- but nonetheless, well done.

After you've read these books a certain number of times, you start to spot little jokes and cul-de-sacs. Peggy Rathmann's Good Night, Gorilla is filled with hidden gags and subplots just waiting to be spotted on a fifth, fifteenth, or ninety-ninth reading; I presume they're there to keep the experience fresh for the parent as he's dragged through the gorilla's adventures yet another time. Once I started to notice those, I naturally began to hunt for Easter eggs in other books. Like Saussure and his anagrams, I soon was spotting them whether or not they were supposed to be there.

I'm certain, for instance, that Goodnight Moon contains a product-placement ad for the same author's Runaway Bunny. I'm less certain about the book's great unanswered question: What's going on in that dollhouse? At the end of the story the young rabbit is asleep, the old lady has vanished, and darkness has fallen everywhere -- except in that mysterious toy house in the corner, where the lights are still on. The little bunny might not stand a chance, but someone is staying up late. Or so I tell myself as my daughter reaches for another book.

It's Pat the Bunny that drives me crazy. "Judy can read her book," the text tells us, and we see not just a picture of Judy reading but a copy of Judy's tome itself, helpfully affixed to the opposite page. But if you compare the illustration to the actual book, you'll see that Judy is holding her book upside down. Obviously she can't read it. Like Lolita or "The Tell-Tale Heart," Pat the Bunny has an unreliable narrator.

But that pulls out the rug from below us. If Judy can't read, what other lies are we being told? Can Paul really smell those flowers? Can he get his chubby finger through Mummy's little ring? Why isn't Mummy wearing that ring, anyway? "Judy can feel Daddy's scratchy face" -- well, she's touching some guy's face. How do we know that's really her daddy?

What? Stop looking at me like that. I'm just trying to decipher the damn book. Its endless row of riddles keeps drawing me deeper...hidden messages in the margin...Pat the Bunny! Ever notice that that's an anagram for Buy Then Pant?

Be checked and I don't want harmony. Yes, please, police are. Ah, no! French-Canadian bean soup...

posted by Jesse 8:25 PM
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