“Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Radical and Rapturous Life, Illustrated
By Maria Popova
Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) lived her life on her own terms and died, far too young, kicking her leg up can-can style out of a hospital bed, leaving behind Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny and a hundred — hundred! — more beloved children’s books and some devastatingly beautiful poems. She was unapologetically strange: She swam naked in the cold ocean, put a door in her house that opened out into a plunging cliff, and bought all of a flower vendor’s bouquets when she received her first paycheck for a book. Even the love of her life was named Michael Strange. (Her real name was Blanche Oelrichs.) Out of that strangeness she made wondrous, unexampled books that enchanted children with their playful poetics and their largehearted candor. In her will, she decreed that an epitaph be etched onto her granite tombstone: “Margaret Wise Brown. Writer of Songs and Nonsense.” Beneath it, the following inscription was added by those who loved her:
You gave us all so much —
A chance to love
A place to rest
A window into living.
A splendid window into her world opens up in The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown (public library) by writer Mac Barnett and artist Sarah Jacoby, playfully titled after Brown’s essentialist masterpiece The Important Book.
With his simply worded richness of sentiment, Barnett promises on the opening page:
Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years.
This book is 42 pages long.
You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages,
so I am just going to tell you some important things.
Somehow, these few “important things” end up distilling the essence of Brown’s spirit. Emanating from them all is a larger love letter to the life of books rendered through the lives of those who make them:
It can be odd to imagine the lives of the people who write the books you read,
like running into your teacher at the supermarket.
But authors are people.
They are born and they die.
They fall in love and they fall in love again.
They go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes,
which they keep in the bottom drawers of their refrigerators,
even though tomatoes should stay out on the counter.
But which of these things is important? And to whom?
Often, the seemingly unimportant things — the mundane choices, the quirks, the daily circumstance of being — end up becoming the building blocks of character and creativity. We learn, for instance, of the pets Margaret Wise Brown kept as a little girl living in a house by the woods: a dog, two squirrels, seven fish, a pair of guinea pigs, a wild robin, and thirty-six rabbits — rabbits that inspired the central characters in some of her most beloved books. Even Michael Strange’s nickname for her was “Bunny-no-good.”
In one of the vignettes that string together the story of her life, Barnett writes:
This is a story about a rabbit.
Margaret’s rabbits lived in a great big hutch.
At first there were a few,
and then there were many.
That’s how it is with rabbits.
They are born,
and they die,
and when one of Margaret’s rabbits died,
she skinned the rabbit
and wore its pelt.
Margaret wrapped herself in that rabbit’s fur
and paraded before her brother and sisters
(and the other rabbits as well).
In consonance with Brown’s contemporary E.B. White’s insistence that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time [because] you have to write up, not down,” Barnett adds:
There are people who will say a story like this
doesn’t belong in a children’s book.
But it happened.
Margaret Wise Brown took up a rabbit
and took off its pelt,
and she did it when she was a child.
And isn’t it important that children’s books
contain the things children think of
and the things children do,
even if those things seem strange?
In Jacoby’s almost unbearably tender illustrations, we see Brown swim joyously in the icy waters of her beloved Maine and romp with her beloved dog Crispin’s Crispian and write story after story and persevere as a single powerful librarian launches a censorship crusade against her books, leaving her out — quite literally — on the steps of the New York Public Library toasting tea with her editor, the indomitable Ursula Nordstrom (who once composed the single finest response to censorship I have ever encountered when another one of her authors, the young Maurice Sendak, came under fire).
Barnett handles Brown’s tragic death with touching candor and sensitivity, emanating a larger meditation on the nature of life:
Lives don’t work the way most books do.
They can end suddenly,
as fast as you kick your leg in the air.
Lives are funny and sad,
scary and comforting,
beautiful and ugly,
but not when they’re supposed to be,
and sometimes all at the same time.
There are patterns in a life,
and patterns in a story,
but in real lives and good stories
the patterns are hard to see,
because the truth is never made of straight lines.
Lives are strange.
Complement The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown with Brown’s own least known, strangest and most wondrous book about life and death, then revisit some other fantastic picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Emily Dickinson, John Lewis, Keith Haring, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Wangari Maathai, and Nellie Bly.
Published December 12, 2022