Margaret Wise Brown is the author of beloved children's books such as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. She died suddenly at age 42, leaving behind a body of unpublished work. HarperCollins Children's Books hide caption
Margaret Wise Brown is the author of beloved children's books such as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. She died suddenly at age 42, leaving behind a body of unpublished work.HarperCollins Children's Books
Children's book doyenne Margaret Wise Brown is having a big week. A new biography by Amy Gary, called The Great Green Room, has just been released, along with a previously unpublished picture book called North, South, East, West. And, it's been 75 years since The Runaway Bunny first left home. Weekend Edition books editor Barrie Hardymon talks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the thread of adventure that runs through Brown's life and work.
Of the more than 100 published and unpublished books written by the intrepid and prolific Margaret Wise Brown, there is probably none more well-worn than Goodnight Moon. In my own nursery no less than four copies have passed through. One became so battered that it fell apart at the old lady whispering hush — split into two parts, invocation ("In the great green room") and benediction ("Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere").
Goodnight Moon, and indeed most of Brown's exceptional and quirky bibliography, are that perfect marriage of mesmerizing for children and tantalizing for adults. They're a pleasure to read — precise and rhythmic — words that don't rhyme still harmonize so beautifully that even the most halting reader can become a poet, telling her child a blessing.
It's tempting to believe that Brown was herself the old lady whispering hush, but it's gratifying to find from her two biographies (Amy Gary's recent In the Great Green Room and Leonard Marcus' 1992 Awakened By the Moon) that she was a babe — seriously, she glows like Carole Lombard — and more importantly, she was a rebel.
When she received her first check for writing, she didn't buy necessities or even champagne, but an entire cart full of flowers. She had dramatic and tumultuous love affairs with both men and women. She was ambivalent about her audience, famously telling a reporter, "I don't particularly like children."
She may not have liked them, but she knew them. Brown's books are stories told through the eyes of children, with equal parts wonder and terror at the infinite world, and a brave yearning for independence. The criminally underread Mister Dog is about a dog and a boy's mastery of their own lives — "Crispin's Crispian: the dog who belonged to himself." (It's also got a nice recipe for bone broth in it.)
In Little Fur Family, the little "fur child" explores the wood all by himself, out 'till sunset. My youngest boy exclaims in joy and amazement, "Mama, he was gone all day!" It's inspiring and reassuring; the fur child returns for supper.
A new, previously unpublished book of hers, North, South, East, West, hits the same notes. A bird yearning to see the world flies in all directions, only to find that home is best, and to sing the same song of encouragement to her own little birds. And the little rabbit in The Runaway Bunny tries every method to run away. He becomes a fish. He walks a tightrope. He turns himself into a rock, for god's sake!
Reactions to TheRunaway Bunny follow the growth of the child — little children love it, seduced by the sheer variety of adventures. ("A crocus in a hidden garden" is of particular interest in my house.) As a teenager, I found it had grown icky; adult children on a second reading find the intensity is too much for a grown child trying to separate from their parent.
But for a new parent, cradling a bath-damp child in her arms — it describes the paradox of child-rearing in a disturbingly precise way. It is a call to action. Can you be the mother rabbit? Steadfast, long-suffering, resourceful — ever-present? And more importantly, should you be?
In the end, the answer may lie in Margaret Wise Brown's own brave and bold life: The world is measureless and vast. Live in it with curiosity and intensity. And bring snacks.
"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.
But, for my money, it’s “The Runaway Bunny” that shows why Brown had a touch of genius, and it’s to this book that my mind continually returned as I read “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown,” by Amy Gary, the former director of publishing at Lucasfilm.
At its heart, “The Runaway Bunny” is about the desire to be watched over and protected. This, I assume, is why Margaret Edson ended her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” with a professor’s tenderly reading the book to her protégée, who lies dying of cancer in a hospital bed. To be forever looked after — what else would we crave when facing the terror of our own impermanence?
Being watched over was something that Brown, too, seemed to crave. Though she came from a pedigreed, well-to-do family, her childhood home was a lonely place. Her mother was a bitter depressive who vanished into her bedroom for days; her father traveled a great deal for work. (Eventually, they separated.)
As an adult, Brown was “needy” in her love relationships, Gary writes, and possessed of a desperate, almost childlike desire to please. Yet, until the last year of her life, she chose partners who were unsuitable and unattainable in every way — most notably, Bill Gaston, a hopeless alcoholic and serial philanderer, and Blanche Oelrichs (better known by her pen name, Michael Strange), a self-involved, thrice-married society bohemian who left her first husband for John Barrymore.
Brown may have led a vibrant, colorful life. But Gary only manages to render her in shades of taupe. Her sentences are strictly utilitarian. (“Margaret and Gratz had seen little of each other over the past few years, and they enjoyed the time together.”) Her early pages are teeming with dead-end digressions. They’re also packed with descriptions of décor and menus — the plastic-foam peanuts authors sometimes toss into a story to give it volume, without realizing that they’re adding no weight.
Far more baffling — criminal, actually — is that Brown’s voice is absent, entirely, from “In the Great Green Room” until the final page. Here is a woman who left behind diaries, letters and papers of all kinds. Why are we not hearing from this thrilling creature, celebrated for her ear, renowned for her sound? (Leonard S. Marcus’s 1992 biography, “Awakened by the Moon,” quotes liberally from Brown’s writing, achieving a far brighter effect.)
This omission is particularly odd in light of how frequently we’re told that Brown regretted never having written a serious book for adults. Quoting from her journals and correspondence would at least have given us a chance to hear her in an adult register — about this very regret, for one thing, but about countless other longings and fantasies, too. We’d have gotten a sense of her interior life in her own words.
Instead, we get Gary’s. She is a strangely passive-aggressive biographer — too timid to analyze Brown’s life in any large and meaningful way, yet presumptuous enough to speak for her. (“Maybe she should stop writing altogether and just grow up,” reads a typical attempt at narrating Brown’s thoughts.) So relentless is Gary’s insistence on narrative omniscience that she refuses to quote almost anyone. I could find only one instance in which she used the words of another. It was on Page 113. It jumped out like a frog.
This seems a terrible missed opportunity. Gary drops tantalizing details into her portrait, suggesting that Brown, for all her glamour and success, really was suspended in the threads of a prolonged adolescence: As a grown woman, Brown painted glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of her apartment. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage to write for mature audiences. Once, she made a stab at an adult love story about a particular day at the zoo with Michael Strange. What came out was a story about a dog and a security guard.
Yet we never hear about these episodes in Brown’s own words. In an author’s note, Gary says that years ago, she found a huge new trunk of the author’s unpublished papers in the barn of Brown’s sister, Roberta. Yet apart from a few poems that serve as chapter epigraphs, I cannot discern how these papers enriched “In the Great Green Room.” Along with the book’s many other idiosyncrasies, it does not contain traditional footnotes. Brown remains elusive and vague throughout, a shadow projected on a wall. When all the reader wants, as Brown wrote in “The Runaway Bunny,” is a tree to come home to.Continue reading the main story