When I was teaching, many of my students were beginning writers who were nervous about starting a story. To get them going, we’d play a kind of word-association game. I’d ask them to list two people, a location, two objects, an adjective, and an abstraction. I’d write everything on the board, then give them five minutes to try to work everything into the beginning of a story.
Somehow, they’d all be able to dive in right away, and everyone always brought out totally different material from the same details. I think Goodnight Moon works in a similar way: It presents you with a range of ambiguous details, asking you to make connections and supply cause and effect. After all, it’s not one of those baby ABC books that simply lists a bunch of isolated images. Instead, it reveals objects around the room in grouped little sequences—close-ups of the brush, the bowl of mush—before returning us to the larger room again, zooming back out so we can see each item in context. It keeps insisting on that whole, in a way, asking us to integrate the snapshots into some kind of narrative.
In this way, the book teaches you that you have to look twice. You’re shown a page with just the mouse on it, for instance, and then you begin to notice the way the mouse moves freely throughout the room. From there, you start to notice other changes that occur as the story unfolds—the hands are moving on the clock, the moon changes positions in the sky. That motion is part of what makes the illustrations so affecting. I loved math and science growing up, and it reminds me of what we did in calculus: When you take a derivative, you’re looking at the change between two points. That’s what makes a story, too—our sense of the way something changes over time.
In my own work, when I start off writing a scene, I don’t know which physical details are going to turn out to be meaningful. But, inevitably, certain images will stand out—you start to decide which ones are important as you go. When I’ve put an image in and it seems to be working, that's always a sign to me that I should go back and ask myself what it is about that image that grabbed me, and whether I can dig deeper into that, make it mean something more. In my first book, Everything I Never Told You, I noticed that eggs kept coming up. So I asked myself: Can I use those eggs again somewhere else? I started to think about the way eggs are fragile, but are also very nutritious, all these sorts of things. The appearance of eggs led to a larger thematic exploration, not the other way around. For me, images are where I start digging around to find the meaning.
One of the most fun things for me, as a writer, is when readers ask questions like: “Oh, I noticed that you have a lot of water and baptism imagery in your book. Did you do that on purpose?” Usually, the answer is that I didn’t do it on purpose at the beginning—but then once I realized I was doing it, I tried to use that to make an artistic point. I don’t really buy into Freudian psychology, but this is one example where I almost do. You feel like there are these connections your brain is making that you’re not aware of until you see it happen on the page.