By Liz Rosenberg – March 29, 1992.
Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon By Leonard S. Marcus, Beacon Press, 337 pages, $25
Among American literary figures, Margaret Wise Brown is hardly a household name. Yet at least two of her books “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny”-are on the all-time best-seller list of hardcover books for children.
The amazing fact is that Brown wrote more than 100 such books and even now, 40 years after her untimely death at the age of 42, more than 40 remain in print. Among these are dozens of children’s classics-“Little Fur Family,” for which Brown not only wrote the text but also designed its first “fur” coat, “Big Red Barn,” “The Color Kittens,” “The Important Book,” “Mister Dog,” “The Dog Who Belonged To Himself,” “The Noisy Book,” “Wheel On The Chimney” and others.
Margaret Wise Brown wrote in the first real “golden age” of American children’s books, as a contemporary of Dr. Seuss and the young newcomer, Maurice Sendak. In truth, she virtually re-invented the picture book, as writer, editor (she was responsible for the publication of Gertrude Stein’s children’s books), impresario, and patron and supporter to her illustrators, many of whom she discovered, and whose names read like a Who`s Who among picture-book makers: Garth Williams, Leonard Weisgard, Clement Hurd, Barbara Cooney, H.A. Rey, Charles Shaw, Crockett Johnson.
That she was “only a writer” makes it even more astonishing that she accomplished what she did, for the most famous names in picture books are almost invariably the “auteurs”-that is, those who both write and illustrate their texts. Margaret Wise Brown’s power may have been partly good luck and good fortune, partly the age in which she lived, a decade or two before the advent of the illustrator super-star. Mostly, though, her powers were artistic and her own.
She invented the board book for children, courted the young folk singer Burl Ives to put some of her work to music, had her eye on children’s theater, television and movies and was, at the time of her death, working on a book called “North South East West,” which was designed to be read “in all directions” and in any order.
Her writing was so voluminous that she never worked for any one publisher and wrote under a number of pseudonyms, among them Golden MacDonald and (with Edith Thatcher Hurd) Juniper Sage.
She once remarked that she had a new idea for a children`s story every time she turned over in bed-from which one gathers that she must have been a restless sleeper. Leonard Marcus’ superb new biography, “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By The Moon,” confirms that suspicion.
Brown’s personal life was often lonely and unhappy. Her art was something else again.
Trained in so-called “here-and-now” school of writing nursery literature at the innovative Bank Street School, she nonetheless wrote a luminous prose that married daily and dream life, as typified by her most famous lines: “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.”
Her biographer is one of the best and brightest critics of children’s literature. He is a fine stylist in his own right, and “Awakened By The Moon” is often a work of art.
Margaret Wise Brown was generous to a fault, and she was, as Marcus points out and as photographs prove, “charismatically beautiful.” But she led a troubled and tumultuous life and could be cruel, selfish, capricious, self-pitying and immature.
She had a long, difficult affair with a woman famous in her day for her beauty and commanding presence, Michael Strange, once the wife of John Barrymore. Brown was also an anti-Semite and a snob.
Brown talking about Brown is often irritating. Yet Brown talking about her own work makes all the rest seem bearable: “. . . to respond entirely, is my idea of complete health,” she once wrote to a friend, about one of the rare times in her life when her work and life seemed in balance. She spoke constantly, uneasily, about her desire to “graduate” from children’s to adult literature, yet no one has written more eloquently about the sources and power of children’s books: “A child’s own story is a dream, but a good story is a dream that is true for more than one child.” She drew from the “child that is within all of us always-perhaps the one laboratory that we all share.”
She lived in extravagance and exuberance-her first paycheck went to buy an entire cartload of flowers and her last gesture, a kidding-around high kick in her hospital bed, loosened the embolism that killed her. One may hope this book will awaken the general public to its subject’s contributions. Countless readers have loved her; now some will be able to know her, as well.