Margaret Wise Brown – American writer, 1910-1952.
American writer, 1910-1952. In a many-faceted, brief, but remarkable career, Margaret Wise Brown pioneered in the writing of books for the nursery school ages; authored more than one hundred volumes including the classic Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947); served as a bridge between the worlds of publishing, progressive education, and the experimental arts of the 1930s and 1940s; and did much to make children’s literature a vital creative enterprise in her own time and afterward.
Born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, on May 23, 1910, Brown grew up the second of three children in suburban Beechurst, Long Island. Her father, Robert Bruce Brown, was an executive of the American Manufacturing Company, makers of rope and bagging for the maritime trade. Her mother, born Maude Johnson, had been Robert’s childhood playmate in Kirkwood. Missouri. Both parents traced their American ancestry to pre-Revolutionary War Virginia, where Robert’s forebears, in particular, had flourished in church and government service. It was a great thing to be born a Brown, young Margaret soon learned; and in the perfectionistic, emotionally chilly world of the Brown household, each child vied for distinction.
Margaret’s older brother Gratz was a shrewd problem-solver like their father. Their younger sister Roberta’s intellectual prowess was more broadly based; always a brilliant scholar (and dutiful daughter), Roberta would skip two grades of school on her triumphant way to Vassar. Wedged uncomfortably between these daunting paradigms of achievement, Margaret carved a dubious niche for herself as the family storyteller, trickster, and daydreamer.
At the girls’ preparatory school Dana Hall, however, “Tim” Brown (as Margaret Wise Brown was known for the golden color, like timothy, of her long, flowing hair) at last met teachers capable of channeling her freeform, intuitive style of attention, and of making learning stick. Then, as an undergraduate at Hollins College, she received her first encouragement to write. On graduating from Hollins in 1932, however, her literary aspirations remained of the vaguest sort. Three more years passed before, lacking an alternative, she enrolled in the teacher training program of New York’s progressive Bureau of Educational Experiments (called “Bank Street” for its Greenwich Village location). There, as part of the experientially based training routine, Brown composed her first children’s stories and found her vocation.
From her inspired teacher, Bank Street founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Brown received important lessons in craft and professionalism and a thorough grounding in Mitchell’s controversial ideas about writing for the young. Mitchell’s study of the patterns of early childhood development had led her during the second decade of the twentieth century to ask whether there were not certain types of stories and poems that corresponded most closely to the needs and abilities of children at each developmental stage. Research into this question had prompted her to reject many of the reigning library establishment’s basic assumptions about literature for the younger ages.
Children under the age of six, Mitchell had found, had no special affinity for fantastic tales about castles and kings or for traditional nursery nonsense, as the librarians supposed. The very young seemed far more at home with stories about the modern-day world, which to them was fantastic. Mitchell laid out this and several other equally arresting ideas in the introduction and notes to her Here and Now Story Book of 1921, an age-graded anthology that provoked a lively debate on publication and later served as a model for Brown and others.
By the mid-1930s, with a talented protegee like “Brownie” to assist her, Mitchell was ready to advance her children’s Literature project several steps further. First, in 1936, she enlisted Brown and a small group of others to collaborate with her on a sequel anthology, Another Here and Now Story Book (1937), which reaffirmed in somewhat more flexible terms Mitchell’s critique of the librarians’ unscientific and, as she thought, essentially sentimental point of view. Then, in 1937, Mitchell established the Bank Street Writers Laboratory as a permanent training ground for authors in the here- and-now vein (Brown was a charter member); and, the following year, she helped launch the small publishing firm of William R. Scott, Inc. (with Brown as editor), as a vehicle for sending here-and-now-style books out into the world.
As Scott’s editor, Brown was in a position to champion the innovative work of others, and to publish herself. She did both with alacrity “I submitted it,” she later recalled of The Noisy Book’s (1939) origin- “We”—that is, Brown again—“accepted it.” From the start, her own books led the list of the fledgling firm’s critical and commercial successes (limited as those successes were by the wariness of the library establishment to books cooked in the laboratory of progressive education). The roster of Brown’s editorial discoveries—illustrators Clement Hurd, author-artists Esphyr Slobodkina and Charles Shaw, and others—was also impressive.
Her most spectacular coup, however, came with the publication of Gertrude Stein’s first children’s fantasy, The World Is Round (1939), which Scott commissioned at Brown’s prompting. Stein’s robust delight in wordplay and fascination with the expressive possibilities of rhythmic repetition were features of the voluble expatriates avant-garde work that Brown found distinctly “childlike” (as defined by Mitchell’s research) and thus adaptable to writing for the young. Steinian echoes reverberate throughout Brown’s own Noisy Book series (which grew to eight volumes), Red Light Green Light (published under the name, Golden MacDonald, 1944), The Important Book (1949), Four Fur Feet (1961), and many others.
The younger author’s understanding of modernist experimentation and its relevance for children’s literature is equally apparent in the styles of illustration art she favored as an editor. Slobodkina and Shaw (who were charter members of the American Abstract Artists group of painters), Hurd (who had studied in Paris with Fernand Leger), Jean Charlot (a dazzling printmaker with links both to the Paris avant-garde and to the Mexican muralists), and Weisgard (an illustrator influenced by Stuart Davis and the Constructivists), all created children’s book art that eschewed the anecdotal realism of the day for a bolder, more graphic, and deliberately contemporary vision.
Bumble Bugs and Elephants (1938), The Little (1938), A Child’s Good Night Book (1943), They All Saw It (1944), and Where Have You Been? (1952) are among the many books in which, sentence by sentence or stanza by stanza, Brown presented young children with simple, gamelike structures in which to name their own rhymes, thoughts, and perceptions. In thus extending to readers an open invitation not to hold solemnly to the author’s word as final, but instead to ring their own variations on the printed text, these books epitomized the Bank Street view that children were best approached as full collaborators in learning.
The Noisy Book series and SHHhhh… BANG (1943), which asked readers to produce a variety of amusing sound effects; The Color Kittens (1949), which offered a winsome introduction to color theory; and Little Fur Family (1946), in its snuggly-soft original fur-bound edition, reflected the Bank Street belief in the centrality of sensory experience for the development of children under the age of six. In Goodnight Moon, the one- and two-year-old’s here-and-now world was shown to consist in large measure of his or her own home surroundings. Five Little Firemen (coauthored by Edith Thacker Hurd under the joint pseudonym Juniper Sage, 1948) was one of several books to survey a somewhat older child’s expanding here-and-now awareness of modern towns and cities and their myriad doings.
Mitchell had argued that once children acquired an understanding of their present-day world, a grounding rooted primarily in firsthand observation, they were ready to study the past. In The Log of Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to America in the Year 1492 (1938) and Homes in the Wilderness (1939), the latter of which contained excerpts from the diaries of William Bradford and other Plymouth Colony settlers, Brown provided readers of eight and older with opportunities to glimpse the past through the firsthand observations of participants.
Mitchell’s influence on Brown’s writings and editorial work was thus various and immense. But Brown had too incisive an imagination, and was too fine a writer, not to have searched out the limits of her mentor’s ideas, and to have ventured beyond them. Mitchell had based her model of here-and-now development on the out- fees of the child’s changing capacity for cognition and perception. Brown’s first published book, When the Wind Blew (1937), a melancholy tale about an old woman living by herself, signaled its author’s interest in exploring the emotional realm as well.
In The Runaway Bunny, Little Fur Family, The Little Island (published under the name Golden MacDonald, 1946), Wait Till the Moon Is Full (1948), and Mister Dog (1952) Brown fashioned poignant fables of the shifting balance of the child’s deep-seated yearnings for security and independence. And in books like Little Fur Family, The Little Island, Fox Eyes (1951), and The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds (1950), she took further exception with here-and- now orthodoxy through her whole-hearted embrace of fairy-tale elements of magic and mystery.
Margaret Wise Brown, who had relished from early childhood Andrew Lang’s Rainbow Fairy collections and the rhymes of Mother Goose, had never been altogether convinced that such open-endedly imaginative material could be inappropriate at any stage in a child’s development. It was in 1942, the year of The Runaway Bunny’s publication, that Brown ended both her editorial work for Scott and her regular participation in Bank Street activities, including the Writers Laboratory. As an extraordinarily prolific author, she continued throughout the rest of her brief career to add to the list of houses with whom she published. But from the early 1940s onward, Harper and Brothers, under the editorship of the boldly receptive Ursula Nordstrom, was Brown’s creative home.
As the titles of several books—Big Dog, Little Dog (1943), Night and Day (1942), and The Quiet Noisy Book (1950)—suggest, Brown delighted in the play, and contemplation, of opposites. In Goodnight Moon, the book for which she has long been best known, she achieved her most compelling synthesis of the opposing tendencies within her imaginative vision. Brown furnished the “great green room” not only with the chairs and clocks of Bank Street actuality but with fanciful images (the three little bears, the cow jumping over the moon) of classic make-believe and with the tantalizing nonpresence of “nobody.” In so doing, she accurately mirrored, and thus confirmed, the young child’s experience of here-and-now reality and the land of pretend as largely overlapping territories.
On November 13, 1952, at the age of forty-two, Margaret Wise Brown died unexpectedly while visiting the south of France, of an embolism following a routine operation. She never married or had children of her own. Her private life was a whirl of glamorous friends, eccentric houses, and adventurous travel, but also of torturous bouts with self-doubt and of inconclusive, more than occasionally painful relationships, most notably her ten-year-long on-again-off-again affair with Michael Strange, the celebrity-socialite-poet and former wife of John Barrymore. Strange, who died in 1950, was old enough to have been Brown’s mother; James Rockefeller, Jr., to whom Brown became engaged just months before her sudden death, was young enough to have been her son.
The striking reverse symmetry in the age differences of these two relationships, whatever its significance as a clue to Brown’s own internal dynamics, hints at the source of the abiding power of her work: Brown’s ability simultaneously to write from a Child’s perspective and as a good provider of comforting fables and luminous, clarifying perceptions. In Goodnight Moon, it is that good provider who gently leads the listener into the great green room; but it is the child who then takes up the litany of “goodnights,’’ and is thus assured, as the young are by so many Brown books, a satisfying role in the scheme of existence.
Leonard S.. Marcus
Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.