Moon Symbolism In Storytelling

OVERSIZED MOONS

There is a rule that moons in picture books must be bigger than the look in real life, from anywhere on Earth. I didn’t fully realise this was a rule until a beta reader for Midnight Feast asked me why my moon was so small. In fact, the moon was the ‘correct’ size, but then I realised why he had asked the question: Every single picture book I looked at had an oversize moon.

Why is this? I believe it’s because picturebooks don’t happen in the real world. They happen inside this other reality, in which size is all out of whack. Children can behave autonomously as adults; adults can behave as children.

For the record, the moon at the end of Midnight Feast is now oversized. I did change it. And yeah, it does look better.

final scene from Midnight Feast
final scene from Midnight Feast

There is also an oversized moon in The Artifacts, but because it’s in a picture book, it doesn’t look big, does it?

The Artifacts sheep moon

Why is the moon so important in literature?

  • A (large) moon can infuse your story with magical powers, even when the story is not of the fantasy genre per se.
  • The moon is a physical manifestation of fate.
  • A moon can be seen from everybody, anywhere on Earth and therefore makes a story feel universal, much like a myth.
  • The moon can lend a feminine feel to a story, since it is connected to the menstrual cycle.
  • The moon is comforting, since it waxes and wanes predictably.
  • In picturebooks, for practical purposes, the moon provides a great source of light, making night scenes glow.
Woman in lunar landscape 1955,Virgil Finlay
Woman in lunar landscape 1955,Virgil Finlay

The Moon ‘Incorporated’

Sometimes illustrators emphasise the importance of the moon by incorporating the celestial object into the design in a way that makes the moon seem part of the earthly landscape.

On the cover of Slinky Malinki it’s done subtly, with the glow from the moon providing an illuminating frame for the title.

Slinky Malinki cover

Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene

Which Witch's Wand Works01
Which Witch's Wand Works02

Kay Nielson’s illustrations incorporate the moon more fully into the story, as the story requires:

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson

This is a crystal ball, but we’re lead to associate the crystal ball with the moon.

Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson moon incorporated
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
EIN KÖRNCHEN FÜR DEN PFAU (1970) Helga Aichinger moon
EIN KÖRNCHEN FÜR DEN PFAU (1970) Helga Aichinger moon
They soared up into the sky and flew away by Sakura Fujita taken from 'The Moon and the Fishes' by Sukeyuki Imanishi. 1972. Gakken
They soared up into the sky and flew away by Sakura Fujita taken from ‘The Moon and the Fishes’ by Sukeyuki Imanishi. 1972. Gakken

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOON DEPICTED IN ART

One of the oldest portrayals of the moon was made at the height of the Bronze Age. The two-dimensional sculpture, forged from metal and gold, is called the Nebra Sky Disk because of where it was discovered in Germany. It dates to 1600 B.C. and is one of the oldest known depictions of the cosmos. Art historians believe it was probably an astronomical tool, hinting at how some Bronze Age cultures kept watch on the sky.

To the East and many centuries later, the crescent moon appeared in a sculpture called the Stele of Nabonidus. In ancient Babylon, King Nabonidus worshiped the moon god, called Sin, represented as the crescent moon. The king even gestures upward as a mark of his devotion. This piece dates to the sixth century B.C., during the last neo-Babylonian era, when religious worship of the moon was common.

NYT

Exception

In her illustrations of Beauty and the Beast, Schroder creates a fantastical moon which is actually smaller than a real moon.

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

Massive Moons On Book Covers

There’s a graphic design advantage to huge moons as covers — the moon provides a light-coloured circle upon which to showcase the title.

The Moonday Cover moon is massive.
This story was based on the author/illustrator’s dream.

Oversized Moons In Books For Adults

This design feature isn’t limited to kidlit. Adults and teens are also drawn to oversized moons.

Since Earth is about three times the size of the moon, the Earth from the moon would look about the size of a picture book moon from Earth. I imagine this is about right?

When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000

MOON EQUALS NIGHT; SUN EQUALS DAY

Here’s something you won’t easily find in fictional picture books: The moon out during the daytime. In picture books — as well as in comics, film and movies — you’ll find that the moon signifies the night.

Even our hand held technology reinforces this binary. Various apps on my phone use a crescent moon as the symbol for ‘night mode’, even though the moon is not visible every night and even though it is sometimes visible during the day.

Why is the moon visible during the day? It’s one of those questions you think you know the answer to until a child asks you. Then you might find you need to go look it up. Here’s a YouTube video for just such an occasion.

Moon As Part Of The Picture

The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Tesnohlidek. This illustration is a good example of how storytellers sometimes pull the moon down from the sky and interact with it as if it were an object on Earth.
The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Tesnohlidek. This illustration is a good example of how storytellers sometimes pull the moon down from the sky and interact with it as if it were an object on Earth.

Related Links

The Rule of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks — moons in picture books tend to be much bigger than in real life.

The Colour Of Sky — tell young artists, it’s not always blue!

from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban
from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban, in which a little mole tries to get the moon out of the sky.
Garth Williams illustration from 'Elves & Fairies' 1951
Garth Williams illustration from ‘Elves & Fairies’ 1951
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
Mostly greyscale June Moon poster from Broadway Music Corporation of woman and man looking up at yellow moon
Cover design and illustration by F. E. Phares, 1921 june moon
New Moon by Shirley Kite 1927
New Moon by Shirley Kite 1927
Miss Pickerell On The Moon by Ellen MacGregor, Dora Pantell and Charles Geer 1965
Miss Pickerell On The Moon by Ellen MacGregor, Dora Pantell and Charles Geer 1965
Cat sits atop a chimney on a two storied house at night
Illustration by Seymour Fleishman from the children’s book The Pussy who went to the Moon by Jane Thayer, 1960
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
A Rocket pokes out of a tower after a crash
Émile-Antoine Bayard (1837 – 1891) 1870 Illustration for Around the Moon by Jules Verne
Louis M. Eilshemius (1864 - 1941) City Street In Moonlight
Louis M. Eilshemius (1864 – 1941) City Street In Moonlight
Kawase Hasui illustration of moon at night behind wooden bridge with dominant colour of blue
Kawase Hasui, moonlight bridge
Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968
British painter Edward Robert Hughes painting of a naked woman posed as crescent moon in night sky
Edward Robert Hughes (British painter) 1851 – 1914 The Weary moon
Władysław Teodor 'W.T.' Benda (Polish, 1873-1948) The Earth and Milky Way and Moon 1918
Władysław Teodor ‘W.T.’ Benda (Polish, 1873-1948) The Earth and Milky Way and Moon 1918
Gustave Doré (1832-1883) 1868 A Voyage to the Moon
Gustave Doré (1832-1883) 1868 A Voyage to the Moon
View of Saturn seen from its largest moon Titan. Illustration by Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947)
View of Saturn seen from its largest moon Titan. Illustration by Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947)
Aspect of an Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth as it would appear as seen from the Moon Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (Nasmyth Murray), London, 1874
Aspect of an Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth as it would appear as seen from the Moon Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (Nasmyth Murray), London, 1874
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Header illustration: Alphonse Mucha- The Moon and the Stars