Conversations with Ghosts: Margaret Wise Brown and Kevin Brockmeier

by on Aug.25, 2010

This: Margaret Wise Brown

My daughter told me recently, in a matter of fact tone at breakfast-time, that our house has a ghost: a lady with a parasol who exits the front door in the early morning, to walk her ghost dog. It’s strange but if you search on the Internet from my location with the simple phrase “ghosts children” the first listing that comes up is a series of anxious questions posed to a medical site. “Are children more sensitive to ghosts?”  “Can toddler’s talk to ghosts?” (I particularly like the punctuation of that one, suggestive of a missing ghost word between toddler’s and talk.) “My child saw a ghost?” Again, the poignancy of the punctuation!  One apparently must not encourage children to engage with the Ouija, and many believe it is good if your child sees a ghost. This makes sense. After all, every children’s book is full of ghosts, not characters. A very young child hearing a book read aloud does not think “This is a book about an imaginary child or dog who does things.” The child senses that the characters are real and is enchanted by them.

How does this happen? The child experiences the story in image, in words, through a conduit (parent, teacher, or special friend). The zone is spectral, a triad of reader, child, and book, with the characters and setting of the book emanating out from its pages, floating out there invisibly in the air but electrifying the child. This “contact zone” as Maria Tatar beautifully calls it is really real.  Perhaps a children’s book is a kind of ghost vision. But in this vision, is the ghost the book, the house the reader, and the ghost-seer the child? Or is the reader the house, the ghost the book, and the conduit—whatever has to happen to reveal the ghost to someone—then the child? House, ghost, child, story, author and book move in and out of this and that world together, holding hands through invisible matter.

Regardless, as in any ghost story, there is no question about whether a ghost does or does not exist in a children’s book, whether about a sleepy bunny, talking badger, or depressive toad. Who is speaking in Goodnight Moon by the luminous author Margaret Wise Brown? (I will be writing more about her in this series.) Not the old lady whispering hush; the voice points her out to the reader. But whose voice? Not the bunny, waiting for sleep. Nobody? But nobody, too, is addressed: “Goodnight, nobody.” Nobody is out here, outside the book, with us, always. Is nobody a ghost?

The relationship between literature as supernatural begins in childhood.

 That: Kevin Brockmeier


Kevin, can you hear me? Kevin, Kevin, you’re awake, do you understand?

I’m not sleeping—I can see that. There’s the fan, and there’s the dresser. There’s the clock with its broken red numbers. Is there a middle place, one where we’re awake but still alert to our dreams? Then that’s where I must be. But you—you keep saying my name as if you know me.

 I do know you, Kevin, Kevin. I’ve been watching you, watching all these years. Tell me, because I want an answer: what gives you the right to waste them as you did?

 Ah, but to waste them—who can say what that means? There are too many puzzles, too many mysteries. Here: I found one possible road, and I took it, that’s all. I imagined once that I would find another way. I didn’t. Living is just too complicated.

 Living! Living is the same as dead. Only a matter of time. Do you know, Kevin, do you know, Kevin, Kevin, do you have any idea how much you’ll miss when you’re gone?

 I know I’ll miss my friends, the books I love, the music. The sound of a smooth road under my tires. The feel of soda bubbles pinpricking my lips. The way the sky looks through my window in the morning, when I’m lying in bed with my eyes open, refusing to begin the day.


Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His new novel, The Illumination, is forthcoming in February 2011. Recently he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Kate Bernheimer

    Anyone interested in MWB should check out her multitude of incredible and shamefully out-of-print books, about which I’ll write here in the future.

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Kate, another thought-provoking post on your developing theory of ghostliness. Ghost-media!

    There’s something in the Tatar account of the ‘contact zone’, the various ‘media’ through which a story passes when read to a child, and your own quandrying of about that passage–[“But in this vision, is the ghost the book, the house the reader, and the ghost-seer the child? Or is the reader the house, the ghost the book, and the conduit—whatever has to happen to reveal the ghost to someone—then the child?”] that reminds me of Joseph Vogl’s concept of ‘becoming-media’ in ‘Galileo’s Telescope’–

    A few quotes from my notebook, forgive any errors:

    ‘Media make things readable, visible, perceptible, but in doing so they have the tendency to erase themselves and their constituitive sensory function, making themselves imperceptible and ‘anesthetic'”

    “What the telescope thus brings into view is the difference between the visible and hte invisible and what it produces above all is invisibility, visible invisibility”

    “No such thing as a medium exists in any permanent sense. That media denaturalize the senses and allow their historiciaation; that media can be understood as self-referential world-creating organs; that media are defined by the anaesthetic space they produce […] A history of media [would equal the] mere events of a discontinuous becoming-media”

    So those are my notes on his essay which you can read in the MIT journal ‘Grey Room’ on JSTOR… I’m thinking that to combine his notion of ‘becoming media’ which is would isolate historical points of flux (nice paradox) with Tatar’s contact zone and your own notion that all the parts/participants in this chain of mediumicity (book, child, house, ghost,etc) can change places, and you might have some model of ‘becoming-ghost’…

    Or am I crazy? I’m reading this media stuff to work up my own idea of hte body posessed by media but this morning I like your ghost-media better!!


  3. Kate Bernheimer

    This is a great lead, Joyelle. I love the idea of looking into theories of media/mediumicity as I develop this idea. Will step over to JSTOR now. I was reading about Tove Jansson today for next week’s post, and I think this quote relates: “In a children’s book there must be a path where the author stands still and the child walks on. A threat or a wonder that is never explained. A face that never shows itself entirely.” (She means this really. As in Moomin’s Electrical Ghosts.) So thank you for this comment, JM.