Can you finish this sentence? In the great green room ...
To those who could complete the opening line of Goodnight Moon, chances are you're a parent. It is the rare mom or dad who makes it through their child's toddler years without memorizing at least a portion of this classic bedtime book. It's no accident this story has lulled millions of children to sleep for over fifty years, since its author was one of the pioneers of children's literature.
Before Margaret Wise Brown's arrival on the picture book publishing scene, fairytales and fables dominated the world of illustrated stories. But Margaret, or Brownie as her friends often called her, brought flair to writing for children that other authors have yet to match. Hundreds of stories and poems poured out this beautiful, dashing young woman whose social circle included the wealthy and famous, royalty and American aristocracy. The stunning green-eyed blonde who penned the future of children's literature was as fascinating a character as any pajama-clad talking bunny she created on paper.
Even now, over forty years after her sudden and unexpected death, those who comprised her inner circle still speak of her enormous creative powers as true genius. She attributed her success to being able to reach down into the soul of the child that still lived within her and bring it to life. Considering the meagerness of words required by children's writing, Margaret's ability to express these childhood issues in beautiful and touching, but sparse verse was rare.
She wrote with the then "new" idea that children would rather read about their own lives instead of fairytales and fables. This approach, dubbed the "here and now" philosophy, was created and tested at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City. There, under Lucy Sprague Mitchell's tutelage, Margaret encouraged children to swap stories with her. In that special writing laboratory, she communicated with children about what they wanted to read and the problems they faced.
She often brought illustrators into kindergarten classes to draw in front of the young, but discerning audience. She got a feel for the accuracy small minds require and the creative eyes within these small bodies, and began to write stories with this first-hand knowledge at the center of her work. Mrs. Mitchell credited Margaret with giving the "here and now" philosophy artistic wings.
Within a few short years dozens of Margaret Wise Brown books reached bookstore shelves, with dozens more in the publishing pipeline. Brownie said the stories wouldn't stop flowing. She woke up with a "head full of stories" and by the time she could scribble them down more ideas would pour in. She kept six publishers busy with her prolific output and created pen names to keep from flooding the market with Margaret Wise Brown titles. Golden MacDonald, Juniper Sage, Kaintuck Brown and Timothy Hay were among the nom de plumes she used.
She fought for proper author and illustrator royalties at a time when the industry was establishing payment practices. She insisted her artists receive the same royalty as she did, although they had previously only received a flat payment. Her negotiations with her publishers were often sprinkled with her personal outrage at how the business treated their creative talent. In the midst of one dispute, Margaret teasingly threatened to shoot a publisher with "her bow and arrow" if she saw him walking down the street. Her relationships with her editors were less antagonistic, but still openly critical if they didn't see eye to eye on the development of a story.
She lived extravagantly off of her royalties, including buying a street vendor's entire cart of flowers with her first royalty check. After having them delivered to her upper East Side apartment, she threw a party for her friends to enjoy her purchase. She would, at times, sell a story to buy a coat, car or airplane ticket to Europe. She was rarely seen without one of her dogs in tow. Standard poodles and kerry blue terriers were her canine of choice and in some stories became the central characters.
To encourage one of her deadline dismissive illustrators to finish a book that featured kerry blues, she bought two puppies to be his models. The illustrator dutifully locked himself and the pups away at Margaret's writing retreat in Maine and began to paint. After an exhaustive day of painting the needed pictures for the book, the illustrator collapsed in a deep sleep. The next morning he woke to find all of the paintings he had just completed were bare. The dogs had licked the pages clean.
Her social circle included the famous and royalty. She dated the then Prince of Spain, Juan Carlos, and was friends with John Barrymore and his one of wives, Michael Strange. She was reputed to have had a long term affair with a prominent New York attorney and with Michael Strang. Her Vinylhaven, Maine retreat was purchased to be near the attorney, but it became legendary because of Margaret's touches of hospitality and humor.
Since there was no electricity on the property, her well served as a refrigerator. Butter, milk and other perishables could be had simply by pulling up the appropriately labled rope. She stored wine in the streams, strategically placing bottles to refresh her guests on hikes around the property. She paid a local fisherman to keep her lobster traps full, thereby impressing her visitors with the ease at which dinner could be had. She called this retreat The Only House. From one of the rooms you could see the sea at any angle, since she adhered mirros around all of the walls to reflect the sparkling sea that lay just beyond a flower-filled meadow.
The Only House wasn't her only writing refuge. When walking around the strets of New York, Margaret came upon a tiny four-room house, nestled between skyscrapers and warehouses. She promptly rented the home and christened it Cobble Court, giving homage to the stone entryway. Since this retreat also had no utilities, she draped the floors, furniture and walls with fur and kept fires burning in the winter. She often welcomed guests to this cozy den and supplied a servant with the accommodations who kept the brass brightly polished and food within arm's reach.
Her life as a children's best-selling author was the featured in an amusing Life magazine article, which captured the whimsical side of Brownie. Her penchant for practical jokes included tying cherries or lemons to a potted tree to fool cityfolk into thinking she had a unusually skillful green thumb. Her circle of friends started The Bird Brain Society. Any member, upon inspiration, could declare a day to be Christmas, and all the members would gather to celebrate. Perhaps the quote that most accurately depicted the whimsical attitude Margaret injected into her life was her response to a friend who had asked for the time. "What time would you like it to be?" Brownie replied.
The author who wrote so prolifically and beautifully for children, never had any children of her own. One illustrator claimed she liked children in theory, but in person it was a different story. This was only partly true, since there were individual children she enjoyed. One such child often visited her and exchanged his thoughts on her works. He was named in her will to receive royalties on many of her works, including Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon.
The author who created tale after tale of soft, cuddly bunnies, kittens and puppies was also the national champion of beagaling. Popular in England and on Long Island during that time, beagaling was a sport of the fleet footed, requiring the winner to be the first runner to reach the prey behind the hunting dogs. Most often, this was a rabbit, and Margaret's trophies of the hunt included the trophy feet of many prey.
Margaret had a difficult relationship with her mother and father. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her relationship with her father was strained until the time of her death. Roberta and Margaret were close, but competitive. Margaret confided her fear of dying to Roberta when she was stricken with appendicitis while on a book publicity tour in France. She wrote about how afraid she had been during this brush with death. Ironically, only two days after writing the letter Margaret died of an embolism after kicking up her leg can-can style to show the doctor how well she was feeling.
Her sudden death at the age of 42 took the publishing world by surprise. The energetic, robust and unforgettable woman who breezed into their offices with ice cream for the staff on a hot day or fought to keep a four-syllable word in a simple text was simply gone. All of her colleagues and friends say the year of her death was by far, her happiest. She was engaged to be married to "Pebbles" Rockefeller, who shared her zest for life. At the time of her death, he was making another global sailing trip and was to join her in Europe.
Her dual role of writer and editor kept her at the fore-front of children's works. This platform allowed her to experiment with other avenues of entertainment for children, including music, drama, radio shows and the burgeoning field of television. She wanted stories for children to be available to all children, and suggested to cereal companies they place tales on the backs of their cereal boxes. When Golden books first appeared, many reviewers and librarians were appalled that prior boundaries of "quality" publishing standards were being broken. Margaret supported the idea of creating affordable books, penning many tales for Golden that are still in print today. She responded to the negative reception of the these mass-produced books with the quote "The quality of a book is determined by the writing and the illustrations, not its printing."
Margaret's name is still not as well known as her works. Had she lived, her flamboyant life and cutting edge writing style would have undoubtedly allowed the world to know the creative genius behind all those children's bestsellers. She once stated that the author of a book didn't seem important to her as a child, it was the story that was important. As she once said of writing, "One can but hope to make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed as he follows the simple rhythm to its logical end. It can jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar, lift him for a few minutes from his own problems of shoelaces that won't tie, and busy parents and mysterious clock time, into the world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of a story."
In her will, Margaret requested that her body be cremated and her ashes scattered to the sea at her beloved Only House in Maine. A simple rough stone was to mark the site with the words "Margaret Wise Brown, writer of Songs and Nonsense." If her words be nonsense, don't tell the generations raised on her magical gift of storytelling or the generations of children to come who will be lulled to sleep alongside a pajama clad bunny in a gradually darkening room with the words that begin, "In the great green room.