“Goodnight Moon,” the 1947 classic written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, was one of the first children’s books I bought when I became a mother. My kids loved (and still love) the simple characters and sentiments and how the pages take readers on a bedtime tour from the macro (a bunny in a large bedroom) to the micro (a close-up illustration of a painting) and back to the macro.
In our home, there was only one consistent problem with initial readings of “Goodnight Moon”: Nearly every time I read the book to my kids, one of them implored me to pause on the page with the words, “Goodnight mush.” He then pointed to an illustration of something in a bowl and said, “Mama, what’s mush?”
My first mistake was to tell him that mush was like porridge, but given the quizzical look on his face, I soon remembered we aren’t Scottish, British or bears.
I tried telling him mush was like oatmeal, but he reminded me that my oatmeal is never mushy (but shamefully lumpy).
I finally gave up and told him it was “too-delee,” the Persian equivalent of soft, fluffy stuffing, which Iranians traditionally pack inside chicken using basmati rice, onion, turmeric, saffron and other divine ingredients. My kids eat the stuff by the handful.
“Too-delee!” they shouted one night, when I read the words, “Goodnight mush.” Bingo.
Last month, a new children’s picture book made my job of literary cultural ambassador a little easier. Its name? “Goodnight Joon.”
In Persian, “joon” means “life” and is often used to convey to loved ones, especially children, the dramatically loving sentiment, “You’re my entire life.” For all intents and purposes, its closest English equivalent is “dear.”
“Ten years ago, I was talking to my friend on the phone and said, ‘Good night, joon.’ That night, I stayed up until 3 A.M. writing a poem about Persian culture and titled it ‘Goodnight, Joon,’” Ari Roven, one of the book’s co-authors, told the Journal. She shared her poem with her sister-in-law, Sarah Roven. “Sarah loved the poem so much, but it was mainly for adults, as children wouldn’t understand the nuances. She had the idea and the gumption to really make this into a [parody] book appropriate for children.”
Neither Ari nor Sarah is Iranian, but having been born and raised in Los Angeles, they counted Iranians as close friends and embraced Persian culture. “I’ve always had very close Persian friends,” said Ari. “They are simply the best. I always loved attending their family Shabbat dinners and especially their weddings! The warmth and graciousness from the entire family, the delicious food, the music, the vibrant colors of the decor in the home, the abundance of warmth and kindness I felt when I was around them gave me such a deep admiration for the culture.”
This is the first children’s book for both Ari and Sarah. Ari, 35, worked in private equity before becoming a full-time mother to her eighteen-month-old daughter. Sarah, 32, recruited for a software company but loved drawing for her children (ages five, three and eighteen-months) and dreamt of one day illustrating a children’s book. Both gifted artists, they knew they could collaborate on the illustrations to bring “Goodnight Joon” to life. There was only one problem: neither of them spoke Persian.
That’s where Natalie Zangan, a Tehran-born psychotherapist and children’s activist based in Encino, stepped in. Sarah had previously met Natalie through the Los Angeles Jewish community. Natalie offered the critical cultural nuance that makes the book so relatable to Iranian readers. When Sarah and Ari illustrated a real mouse, as per the “young mouse” in the original “Goodnight Moon,” Natalie reminded them that while Americans might consider mice cute and charming, the creatures are practically ritually impure for Iranians. “We compromised on a toy mouse for the little baby in the book to play with,” Sarah said.
To merely describe the book in words is to deprive it of its deliciously vibrant humor and energy. Whereas the original version focuses on a small rabbit — who readers assume is being cared for by his grandmother — as he falls asleep in his parents’ bedroom, “Goodnight Joon” takes us through a tour of a traditional Iranian home that could be anywhere in the world, from Los Angeles to Toronto. The text is mostly comprised of English, with a few words in transliterated Persian. All the familiar comforts are there: the Persian rugs, luminous chandeliers, bowls of fresh fruit and nuts at every turn and, at the center of it all, a doting grandmother (“Mamani), grandfather (“Babaie”) and baby (“Joon”). There’s even a small dog, “Pashmak” (“Fluffy” in Persian), named after one of Natalie’s own pooches. When I read the grandparents’ names, I was deeply moved. Those were the exact same nicknames I used to refer to my maternal grandparents, both of whom escaped Iran to live in Israel.
In reading the book to my children, I felt as if I was in the care of my own grandparents, three of whom I never saw again after I left Iran, but whose love and comforting presence I recognized in “Goodnight Joon.”
In reading the book to my children, I felt as if I was in the care of my own grandparents.
“We realized this was one of the only books written in both Persian and English for bilingual Iranian children,” Sarah said. “With over one million Persians living in the United States, this is a pathetic statistic.”
For her part, Natalie hoped to share the warmth and beauty of Iranian culture. “I believe that learning about other cultures as a child brings more understanding,” she said. “The inclusion of all children is so important within a community, and there isn’t enough recognition and representation of children from minority cultures or children with disabilities.”
“Goodnight Joon” is Natalie’s first attempt at writing a children’s book. She always dreamt of writing but was deterred by a learning disability that left her feeling insecure and vulnerable. “English was my third language after Persian and Hebrew, and for my whole life, it’s been very challenging for me to express myself properly through writing,” she said. “But I persisted. Ari and Sarah helped me push past my barriers to see that my struggles are there to make me stronger.”
Upon its release in December 2020, “Goodnight Joon” was number one on Amazon’s list of best sellers for new releases of children’s nursery rhyme books. The book is self-published. According to Sarah, reader response has been astounding. “Persian mothers have told us multiple times that they feel like they finally have a favorite book for their children from their own culture,” she said.
Natalie, however, was concerned about how the book would be received. “For many years after moving to America, I felt so isolated and alone because people would make fun of my accent,” she said. Her difficult childhood experiences with language had such an effect on her that she only agreed to publish “Goodnight Joon” using a nom de plume, “Nasrin Zadeh.”
But after learning about the book’s success and reader acclaim, Natalie felt comfortable sharing her real name, even though the book cover still states “Nasrin Zadeh” as the author. “I wish this book existed when I was young and new in America,” said Natalie, who has two sets of twins, ages 9 and four-and-a-half.
Sarah and Ari have plans for a series of “Goodnight Moon” parodies that reflect different cultures and their accompanying languages, including a forthcoming Russian and Israeli version. The series will be called “Goodnight Baby.” “By the end of 2021, we’re hoping to have a book for almost every culture group in the United States,” said Sarah.
Concerned over legal issues with the original “Goodnight Moon,” Sarah hired a copyright lawyer, only to learn that parodies of the book are not considered copyright infringement because they don’t take away sales from the original book. “It basically boils down to the fact that the owners of ‘Goodnight Moon’ don’t seem to care about parodies — and that is why there are so many,” Sarah said. In fact, there are dozens of parodies by other authors, including “Goodnight Mom,” “Goodnight iPad,” and “Goodnight Boobs” (an adult parody).
Although she is not Iranian, Ari’s daughter is “captivated” by the book, and Sarah’s children love it as well. For Natalie, the book reminds her children of their grandparents, whom they’ve been unable to see due to the pandemic.
A tireless advocate for Jewish children in the foster care system, Natalie has witnessed firsthand the power of books in bringing children comfort and stability. “Books are the greatest gifts when children are detained and placed in a new, unfamiliar home environment,” she said. “Children are very aware and understand more than we think. Books are the best way to help them put words to feelings to have a greater understanding of what’s happening around them.”
She’s right. “Goodnight Joon” has given my children a sense of ownership over their Iranian customs, giving them access to a literary and illustrative mirror with which to understand a part of their world. In our home, we still love “Goodnight Moon,” but when we read the new, charming parody, there’s one page my children understand more than any other: The one that depicts a big bowl of green mush, with the words, “Goodnight, ghormeh sabzi.”
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.