By Edith Kunhardt Davis – March 22, 1992.
MARGARET WISE BROWN Awakened by the Moon. By Leonard S. Marcus. Illustrated. 337 pp. Boston: Beacon Press. $25.
I DON’T remember Pearl Harbor or V-J Day, but I know exactly where I was in 1946, when I first held, caressed and gazed upon Margaret Wise Brown’s new book, “Little Fur Family.” Brown was the prolific and influential author of the enduring American children’s classics “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” and more than 100 other books.
Unlike her contemporaries Dr. Seuss and Ludwig Bemelmans, Brown was solely a writer, not an illustrator. She is known for the lyrical poetry of her texts. Leonard S. Marcus, the children’s book reviewer for Parenting magazine, spent more than nine years researching “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon,” an absorbing biography that illuminates her life and work.
Born in Brooklyn in 1910, Brown and her brother and sister grew up in a prosperous suburb on Long Island. In 1935 she enrolled as a student teacher in New York’s Bureau of Educational Experiments, better known as Bank Street, the center for research on language development.
Traditional schools then treated children as incomplete adults requiring only a dose of the Three R’s and good manners to prepare them for adult life. Bank Street recognized that children had other interests and needs. The director, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, believed that stories about real things and experiences, the “here and now,” and not traditional fairy tales, were the best introduction to literature for the very young.
Soon Brown began writing and tried out her efforts at the Bank Street nursery school. She also became the first editor at a fledgling children’s book publishing company, W. R. Scott. Brown developed into an adventurous editor — her authors included Gertrude Stein, who wrote “The World Is Round” for Scott — as well as the company’s most prolific author. She discovered artists like Clement Hurd, who later illustrated “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” and whose work Brown had spotted in a mural at a friend’s house in Connecticut. She also encouraged Esphyr Slobodkina (“The Little Fireman”) and Leonard Weisgard, who won the 1947 Caldecott Medal for his illustrations for Brown’s story “The Little Island.”
Soon Brown was writing books for numerous publishers and turning out as many as eight books a year. (To avoid flooding the market, she also wrote under pseudonyms. Some of Golden MacDonald’s books were more popular than Brown’s. With Edith Thacher, another leading author, she used the name Juniper Sage.)
Mr. Marcus’s description of Brown’s creativity is especially interesting: she used parallel descriptions, unusual pairings of objects, patterns, unexpected reversals of patterns, surprises, noises, questions, rhyme. The origin of her great classic about constancy, “The Runaway Bunny,” about a mother and child each undergoing a series of magical transformations, is in a medieval love ballad. “Goodnight Moon,” with its simple, reassuring and cadenced text, elevated the craft of children’s book writing to art.
In her private life as well as in her writing, Brown was somewhat eccentric. Her little house on an island in Maine, called the Only House, had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no heat, no telephone. In Manhattan, she rented a tiny 19th-century wood-frame farmhouse in a hidden courtyard in the East 70’s, which she decorated mostly in fur (a particular love of hers) and used as a writing studio.
“Little Fur Family,” illustrated by Garth Williams, was published in 1946, a three-inch-tall book bound in real rabbit fur. But there was a kind of savage justice: an infestation of moths at the warehouse. Today the book is sold in cloth binding and in synthetic fur.
In 1940, after several broken engagements, Brown entered psychoanalysis. She also met Michael Strange, the self-named, flamboyant former wife of John Barrymore. Their stormy, 10-year sexual relationship, marked by the older woman’s repeated and vicious denigration of Brown and her profession, ended when Strange died of leukemia late in 1950. In April 1952, at age 41, Brown fell in love with James (Pebble) Rockefeller, a much younger man, and they decided to marry. Before the wedding, however, Brown was stricken with acute abdominal pain and underwent emergency surgery while on holiday in France, and remained bedridden for weeks. Happily anticipating her release from the hospital, she flung her leg ceilingward in a jaunty gesture, dislodging a blood clot. Within moments she was dead. It was a sad and unnecessary end. But, as Leonard Marcus so clearly demonstrates, Margaret Wise Brown has left an enduring legacy for us and the generations to come.