Behind the Book

Here’s the forgotten queer love story behind this beloved children’s classic

Children’s books hold a special place in our grown-up hearts. No matter how old we get, we can’t forget the magic of childhood tales like The Snowy Day, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. These stories fired up our imagination and kept us coming back for more, and there’s a reason we tend to pass them down through the generations.

But as we get older, it’s not uncommon to learn about the disturbing, strange, and sometimes utterly heartwarming stories behind the works that inflamed our childhood imagination. In the case of the 1947 bedtime story Goodnight Moon, the backstory is a lot queerer than anyone might expect.


‘Goodnight Moon’ was inspired by a volatile gay affair (Sources:“In the Great Green Room” by Amy Gary, NY Post, Hornet) #Goodnightmoon #childrensbook #margaretwisebrown #michaelstrange #lgbtq #lesbian #gay #booktok

♬ original sound – Alex | Pop Culture Brain – Alex | Pop Culture Brain

Author Margaret Wise Brown’s idea for Goodnight Moon allegedly came to her in a dream. While training to be a teacher in the 1930s, she became inspired by the sapphic poetry of Gertrude Stein and used this inspiration—along with actual feedback from the children she taught—to write Goodnight Moon, a children’s book that was seen as unconventional at a time when kid’s lit was concerned more with fantastical stories and recycled fairy tales. Moon told the simple but evocative story of a mother bunny tucking in her child into bed and saying goodnight to all the objects she’s surrounded by. The brightly-illustrated book, with drawings by Clement Hurd, wasn’t an instant success, but it would endure: by the 1970s, Goodnight Moon had become one of the most checked-out children’s books in the history of the New York Public Library.

So what’s queer about all this? Well, Wise Brown’s classic tale may have been inspired by her real-life love story with another queer woman. A lifelong bachelor, Wise Brown stayed single throughout her life, while enjoying many love affairs with both men and women. One of those women—the charismatic Blanche Oelrichs—was married to a man Wise Brown had been dating long-term. Oelrichs dressed in men’s clothes and used the pen name Michael Strange, and may well have identified as trans or nonbinary in a later era. When Oelrichs’ then-husband introduced Oelrichs and Brown, sparks started flying, and the two writers fell into a passionate romance.

Oelrichs was a feminist poet whose previous flings included a 5-year marriage to John Barrymore, a legend of stage and screen and a member of the American theater’s own royal family. Oelrichs would marry several times, but shortly after meeting Margaret Wise Brown, the two would begin living together in a shared apartment in New York.

But it wasn’t all caviar and roses for the couple. They had frequent fights and couldn’t see eye to eye on many issues—one especially bad fight saw Wise Brown retreating to her house in Maine, where she started to compose a poem about the loneliness of leaving her partner.

After many breakups and reunions, Wise Brown—now back with Oelrichs—returned to the poem after dreaming about it one night. The Getrude Stein-esque poem “Goodnight Room” became Goodnight Moon, and the relationship between Wise Brown and Oelrichs was forever secretly immortalized in print.

Here’s where things get tricky: in 1948, a year after Goodnight Moon was published, Oelrichs got cancer and turned briefly religious, stating that their cancer diagnosis was directly due to their “sinful” relationship with Wise Brown. But on their deathbed, they relented, calling for Wise Brown to sit by their side in their final moments. Wise Brown showed up and stood by her lover’s side until the end.

Their story wasn’t an uncomplicated one, and it left both parties with lasting wounds that would never completely heal. But their love for each other did endure to the end, the best of that love shines through in Goodnight Moon, a book that has endured, and will keep enduring,

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