Margaret Wise Brown
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Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910 – November 13, 1952) was a prolific American author and editor of children’s books, best known for Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny (1942). She grew up in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, the middle of three children whose well-to-do parents made no secret of their unhappy marriage. Margaret was an imaginative child who loved adventure and the outdoors.
She had more than one hundred books published during her lifetime and left behind a trove of unpublished works found after her death. The word “prolific” seems almost inadequate to describe Margaret Wise Brown’s output. What she produced was innovative and fresh, making her one of the driving forces behind the mid-twentieth century revolution in children’s book publishing — not only as a writer, but as an editor.
A solid start
Margaret graduated from Hollins College in Virginia in 1932 with a B.A. in English. She began teaching at the progressive Bank Street School in New York City, where she helped shape curriculum.
Within a few years began writing books for children. She was determined to create stories that rose above bland sentimentality and portrayed girls as equals to boys. Margaret was a dreamer and dawdler in the best senses of the words. Even for the simplest of tales, she spend time researching her subjects, from the smallest flower on the ground to the clouds in the sky. Her aim was to capture a child’s sense of awe as he or she discovered the world.
Her first published book was When the Wind Blew, published in 1937 by Harper & Bros. In the 2016 biography In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary, the biographer describes her subject: “Clever, quirky, and incredibly talented, Margaret embraced life with passion, lived extravagantly off her royalties … and carried on long and troubled love affairs with both men and women.”
Margaret wasn’t herself an illustrator, but worked with some of the best of the era. Clement Hurd did the art for Good Night Moon and Runaway Bunny, among others. She also enjoyed working with Leonard Weisgard, who worked with her on The Noisy Book series and The Important Book.
A capsule biography from Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon
From the introduction to Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard Marcus, Quill Books, an imprint of William Morris & Company © 1992:
A contemporary of Ludwig Bemelmans, Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, and Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown was one of the central figures of a period now considered the golden age of the American picture book, the years spanning the post-Depression thirties and the postwar baby boom forties and fifties.
Bemelmans and the others began as visual artists who became authors as it were, in order to have material to illustrate. In contrast, Margaret Wise Brown was a picture-book writer from the start, the first such writer, as Barbara Bader has remarked in her splendid American Picturebooks, “to be recognized in her own right. The first, too, to make the writing of picture books and art.”
Margaret Wise Brown, photo by Consuelo Kanaga
Within the children’s book world of that immensely fruitful era, Margaret also occupied a unique place as an inspired author for the very youngest, a group of children for whom few had even thought to write before; and no author before or since has manage so well to shape books that complete what Margaret herself once called the “natural impulse to amuse and delight and comfort small children.”
Steeped in the moderns and trained Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s progressive Bank Street school, she incorporated insights from these and other vital contemporary sources into a tireless personal campaign to make the picture book new. For a time she was a highly innovative juvenile book editor, and throughout her career she played impresario to the entire field, taking pleasure in discovering or furthering the careers of illustrators and writers.
As she became increasingly successful, she used her growing influence to fight for juvenile authors and illustrators rights in their dealings with publishers. Widely respected by her colleagues, she lived see her books become extremely popular.
Goodnight Moon has been translated into numerous languages
and has been in print for decades
She lived flamboyantly, like to say she dreamt her books (sometimes, apparently, she did). But there was no dark secret to her death; she died of a blood clot following a routine operation. Margaret, always something of a fatalist, it that often remarked the becoming a children’s author had been an accident of sorts. Her early death, sad as it was, simply happened.
Margaret herself could be exasperating. She could also be a generous and charming and affirming friend. But most of all, she never pretended to more knowledge or self-knowledge send were properly hers. She never gave up on growing up. Not least of all for that reason, she was among the most memorable of people. (— Leonard Marcus)
A trubulent love life
Margaret had a complex and turbulent love life. In contrast to her forthright nature as a creator and editor of children’s books, in her personal life she was often described as needy. She had a number of affairs and two great loves in her life.
One was them was the ex-wife of actor John Barrymore, a quirky poet and performer who went by the name Michael Strange. She and Margaret had a passionate but mostly secret relationship. Michael struggled with the suicide of her adult son as well as advanced cancer, and often pushed Margaret away. Margaret was needy and intense in this relationship, and Michael was critical and disdainful of her career as a children’s book writer.
Once their relationship ended, Margaret met James Stillman Rockefeller Jr., a descendant of both the Rockefeller and Carnegie dynasties. He was somewhat younger than she, and in 1952 they became engaged. Later that year, she was in Nice, France for a book tour and she died quite unexpectedly from an embolism (blood clot).
Margaret Wise Brown never had her own children, but seemed to thoroughly understand them. Though only 42 when she died in 1952, she left a body of over one hundred published books. Many have remained timeless classics in the children’s book field. She helped pioneer the idea of combining children’s books with music, and was working on a collection of poetry when she died.
Reviewers appreciated the quirky nature and layers of depth and meaning behind the ostensibly simple text and pictures. In a review of The Runaway Bunny (1942), the reviewer in the El Paso Herald Post wrote:
“It was much more than mere visual appeal to recommend it to the small reader. First, it is obviously a vocabulary builder … then, too, it is highly imaginative and exudes the spirit of adventure while also suggesting a sense of security in the warm, watchful relation between mother and child.”
Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny remain among the most famous children’s picture books of all times. A treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts were discovered after her death and gradually a number of them were published. Amy Gary, author of In the Great Green Room, describes their discovery, and also, what it was like to delve into Margaret’s papers:
“The trunk held manuscripts and ideas for books that were years ahead of their time. Books with flaps and die cuts. Books that emerged from balls and toy barns. Stories written for the backs of cereal boxes. And songs, lots of songs. I hadn’t known Margaret loved music and was hoping to write popular songs that made it onto jukeboxes.
… I have studied her contracts, read her diaries and letters, talked with her friends and loved ones. She gave me an education on how to work with illustrators and how to negotiate a contract. More important, she shoed me how to live with awe and to love with abandon. For that, I am especially grateful.”
Margaret Wise Brown wrote more than one hundred books; this is but a tiny fraction and lists her best known:
- When the Wind Blew (illustrated by Rosalie Slocum, 1937)
- The Noisy Book (series, all illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1939 – 1951)
- The Runaway Bunny (illustrated by Clement Hurd, 1942)
- Goodnight Moon (illustrated by Clement Hurd, 1947)
- The Important Book (illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1949)
- The Color Kittens illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1949)
- Mister Dog (illustrated by Garth Williams, 1952)
- Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard Marcus (1992)
- In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (2017)
Articles, News, Etc.
- Goodnight Moon Author was No Old Lady Whispering Hush
- Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature
- A New Phase of Goodnight Moon?
- ‘Goodnight Songs’ Collects Never-Seen Margaret Wise Brown Works
- MWB papers at Westerly Library, Westerly, RI
- MWB papers, 1938-1960 at Hollins University, Roanoke, VA
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