If I had to bet on the most well-known children's book I would put my money on Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon. You know the one--with the bunnies, the green room, and the bowl full of mush? I have long had an image in my head of what Margaret Wise Brown must have been like and Amy Gary's new book, In the Great Green Room totally blew that away. Brown was a firecracker. She was an innovator. She was amazing. We chose In the Great Green Room as a Best Book of January and I asked Gary what she found most interesting or surprising about Margaret Wise Brown in all of her research. Here are her top five revelations:
- Margaret wrote constantly!
She said she woke up with a head full of stories and had to scribble them down before she forgot them. She left behind over 1,100 manuscripts – some are long stories, some little “jingles”. To write her biography I read over 20,000 pages of her diaries, letters, books, and manuscripts. When an idea came to her, she reached for whatever scrap of paper was available, which included the backs of file folders, hotel stationery, and even a candy wrapper. While on a skiing jaunt, the story of The Runaway Bunny came to her and she jotted it down on the only piece of paper she could find – her ski receipt.
- She revolutionized children’s books…
Margaret’s first writing job was at Bank Street, a progressive school that strove to give girls the same rigorous education as boys. Back then, a girl’s career choices were typically limited to being a nurse or a teacher. They lacked the advanced science and math that were required for professional degrees. Bank Street taught boys and girls those courses on an equal basis. However, finding literature that didn’t subjugate girls was difficult. Margaret’s task was to write stories and poems that filled that void. So, she employed universal and timeless themes. She wrote about the natural world and human nature. She also used animals as main characters so that all children, regardless of race or gender, could picture themselves in that world of story.
3. And she revolutionized book publishing
Soon after Margaret began writing there was a boom in picture book sales, but a shortage of illustrators. She hired fine artists and taught them how to illustrate for children the way she had learned to write for children – by testing their work in front of a classroom full of children. To keep the best illustrators working on her books, she split her royalties with them. She knew they couldn’t make a living wage from the flat fees publishers typically paid. That split between a children’s author and illustrator, along with many of Margaret’s other contract negotiations, are still the industry standards.
Margaret’s notes on contract negotiations after a publisher changed one of her stories without her consent. Photo courtesy of Westerly Public Library. Copyright Hollins University. (click image to view larger)
- The company she kept
The circles Margaret ran in were filled with fascinating and talented people. She briefly dated the pretender to the Spanish crown and Thomas Wolfe. She played in a jazz band that included the famous playwright Irwin Shaw. Nobel Prize Winner Pearl S. Buck sometimes sat in on the writer’s collective Margaret belonged to. On weekends, she ran alongside business tycoons and heiresses as a member of a beagling club that followed the hounds as they pursued rabbits through woods and fields. Among her closest circle of friends were well-respected magazine writers and, of course, award-winning illustrators. She had a decade-long relationship with Michael Strange (born Blanche Oelrichs), who was John Barrymore’s former wife. At the time Margaret died, she was engaged to James (Pebble) Rockefeller, the son of a Carnegie and a Rockefeller. He was her match in love of life and adventure. They planned to marry in the Bahamas and sail off into the sunset on a boat he built.
- Her life was as colorful and imaginative as her picture books
Even though she died many years before, everyone I interviewed for this biography said that they still thought about her every day because she was the most fascinating person they ever met. Being with her was an adventure. She loved to sing and dance. She took friends on hikes to find fairies in the woods, danced the hula in a grass skirt she made from sea kelp, and showed up at a friend’s outdoor Shakespeare performance with a hot dog cart. She handed out those hot dogs with a side of silly songs she made up. One of her friends said that she breathed life into a room, but when she left that room, it was if she took all the air with her.
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