Brown, Margaret Wise (1910–1952)
Brown, Margaret Wise (1910–1952)
American author of the classic children's book Goodnight Moon and innovator in children's literature. Name variations—pseudonyms: Golden McDonald, Juniper Sage, and Timothy Hay. Born Margaret Wise Brown on May 23, 1910, in New York City; died in Nice, France, on November 13, 1952; daughter of Robert Bruce Brown (an executive with the American Manufacturing Company) and Maude Margaret (Johnson) Brown (a homemaker); educated at Château Brillantmont in Switzerland, Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Hollins College, B.A., 1932; never married; no children.
Published first book, When the Wind Blew (1937); served on the publications staff of the Bank Street School, New York City; served as editor at W.R. Scott Publishers (1937–41); wrote more than 100 books and lyrics for 21 children's recordings, including Goodnight Moon.
Margaret Wise Brown once told a publisher that she would write a manuscript for a children's book in 20 minutes—and polish it for a year. She was an amazingly creative writer, one who published over 100 of her own books, as well as adaptations, translations, stories, and poems. Brown's books feature the work of 40 different artists, reflecting her exacting demands that the illustrations be perfectly suited to the text. It was her practice to try out her stories on audiences of young children. Their responses would influence the book's final form. Half of her books are still in print, some have entertained three generations of readers.
Margaret Wise Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York, the middle child of Robert Bruce Brown, a successful businessman, and Maude Johnson Brown . When Margaret was quite young, her family moved to Whitestone Landing on Long Island, where she had woods and beaches to explore, as well as the company of dozens of animals. Brown later claimed that she was too busy as a child to remember many books that she read, although she did recall that The Song of Roland, Black Beauty, Peter Rabbit, and Snow White all seemed true to her, and that Aladdin was the most exciting of all fairy tales. Even as a child, Brown delighted in making up stories to tell her friends. At the same time, she had a need for privacy that was to be characteristic throughout her life.
Brown attended schools on Long Island until her teen years when she and her sister were sent to the Château Brillantmont School in Switzerland where she developed "a touch of the cosmopolitan," and then to Dana Hall in Wellesley, Massachusetts. There she acquired the nickname "Tim," because her hair was the golden color of timothy grass. Margaret then enrolled in Hollins College in Virginia, her mother's alma mater. One of her former professors later described Brown at Hollins as "an individualist, a nonconformist." She enjoyed people more than the discipline of college work and was known for her eccentric behavior, including carrying a red stool back and forth on the train from New York because she wanted it in both places and it would not fit in her trunk. At Hollins, Brown majored in English and developed the love of literature, which she regarded as necessary for any successful writer. In Brown's words, before becoming a writer, one should have "fallen in love with Chaucer's affectionate naming of all the things in his world about him; Shakespeare's pounding rhythms and certain meanings and some of Wordsworth for his simplicity." When she received her B.A. in 1932 and was asked her plans after graduation, she replied, "Lord knows."
All I want to do is write a story that seems absolutely true to the child who hears it and to myself.
—Margaret Wise Brown
Returning to New York, Brown enrolled in a short-story course at Columbia University but dropped out because, in her words, she "couldn't think up any plots." In fact, she tried unsuccessfully throughout her life to write adult fiction. But Brown was more a poet than a storyteller, noted Louise Seaman Bechtel .
In 1935, Margaret joined an experimental writing group led by Lucy Sprague Mitchell and associated with the Bureau for Educational Experiment, later known as the Bank Street School. The school broke new ground in the education of young children, integrating developmental research, teacher training, and preschool education. At Bank Street, Brown both listened to children tell their own stories and studied children's responses to stories read to them, a
technique she would use throughout her life to test her own writings. Brown became a sort of protégée of Mitchell, herself a pioneer in children's literature. Mitchell had developed the "here and now" approach to children's books—an attempt to enter the child's world, to see things through the child's eye. Mitchell's books took place in a contemporary urban setting and were characterized by the rhythmic use of children's own speech patterns. Ironically, Brown's first book, When the Wind Blew (1937), differed from the "here and now" formula. The book, a fantasy based on a story by Anton Chekov, concerned an old lady who had a toothache, 17 cats, and a kitten who comforted her when the wind blew up from the sea.
Also in 1937, Brown met William Scott and became the first editor at his firm founded to publish books for preschool and nursery-age children. During her initial year with Scott, Margaret published four of her own books and edited such innovative volumes as Cottontails, a "feely book" with red glass buttons for apples and a cotton ball for the bunny's tail, designed to be handled by young children. Brown knew that young children would squeeze, bite, throw, and tear books, therefore she had her next work, Bumble Bugs and Elephants, printed on heavy cardboard stock. It featured "big and little" creatures, a device that would reappear in many of Brown's stories.
In 1939, Brown wrote The Noisy Book, the first of a series in which a little dog with bandaged eyes must guess at the sources of the sounds around him. The child becomes involved in the story as he or she responds by guessing the sound before turning the page. Margaret designed the books for children too young to sit wordlessly still while a story was read to them. "Children wrote these books and I was merely an ear and a pen," she wrote. "And also by some accident, one who shared their pleasure or inattention with them." With her typical sense of the absurd, she noted that dogs would also be interested in listening to the "Noisy Books." The Noisy Book proved to be Brown's first big sales success.
While an editor at Scott, Margaret Wise Brown also arranged to have Gertrude Stein write her only children's book, The World Is Round or Rose Is a Rose. During her first few years in the field of children's literature, Brown published seven of her own books and edited numerous others. As Leonard Marcus noted, the late 1930s, "the time of Margaret's professional coming of age," was one of the most dynamic times in the history of children's literature.
Brown left her editorial position at Scott in 1940 over a salary dispute. During the 1940s, she continued to write at least six books a year, working with several different publishers, among them Doubleday, Simon and Schuster, and Harper and Row, and using a number of pseudonyms, including "Golden McDonald," "Juniper Sage," and "Timothy Hay." According to Brown, each name had a different personality. She also believed that it did not matter to a child who had written a book, as long as the story seemed true.
As Golden McDonald, Brown wrote Red Light, Green Light (1944) and Little Lost Lamb (1944) for Doubleday. She wrote The Little Island in 1946, which featured the setting of her summer house at Vinal Haven, Maine, and won a Caldecott medal for the illustrator, Leonard Weisgard. In that book, a kitten learns that his island is part of the larger world, but is also a world of its own. Brown believed that children knew "that the world is as big as the part of it we really know."
During the 1940s, Simon and Schuster brought significant changes to the sphere of children's book publishing with their inexpensively priced Golden Book series. Brown contributed several, such as The Five Little Firemen and Color Kittens, both of which sold millions of copies in the United States and abroad. Also for Simon and Schuster, Brown published what was, in the eyes of many critics, one of her best books, Mr. Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself (1952). It is the story of Crispin's Crispian, named after Brown's own dog, and a small boy who also "belongs to himself." Leonard Marcus has called Mr. Dog Brown's "most fully realized tale of self possession."
Nordstrom, Ursula (1910–1988)
American editor and author. Born on February 1, 1910, in New York, New York; died of ovarian cancer on October 11, 1988, in New Milford, Connecticut; daughter of William and Marie (Nordstrom) Litchfield; attended Northfield School for Girls and Scudder Preparatory School.
An editor and innovator for Harper and Row, Ursula Nordstrom was responsible for the publications of E.B. White's Stuart Little, and Charlotte's Web, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and books by Ruth Krauss , Shel Silverstein, Tomi Ungerer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, M.E. Kerr, Louise Fitzhugh and others. Nordstrom's own book, The Secret Language, is believed to have been based on her own experiences at boarding school.
Margaret Wise Brown's main publisher in the 1940s and '50s was Harper and Row; working there with editor Ursula Nordstrom , Brown produced some of her most famous and creative work. In 1942, she completed The Runaway Bunny, which is based on an old French love song. In this version, it is told as a dialogue between a bunny and his mother, testing the limits of his freedom and presenting the reassuring message that wherever he goes, his mother will find him and care for him. In 1945, Brown wrote The House of a Hundred Windows, which introduced children to contemporary paintings: a cat lives alone in a magical house where, when he looks out the window, he sees one of the pieces of modern art. The year 1946 saw the development of The Little Fur Family, originally bound in rabbit skin. Unfortunately, rabbit skin proved to be susceptible to worms and moths, so after the first 100,000 copies were sold, The Little Fur Family was produced in a more traditional format.
Brown's greatest success, Goodnight Moon, appeared in 1947. The book consists of a child going to bed who says "Good night" to each of the familiar things surrounding him. The illustrations by Clement Hurd are in strong primary colors, yet the effect of the book is soothing. Goodnight Moon, noted Time magazine, has "put two generations of young insomniacs peacefully to sleep in a 'great green room,'" with its secure universe of a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush and a quiet old lady whispering "hush." Hurd liked to tell of an 18-month-old boy who, having heard the story read for the fourth or fifth time one evening, gazed intently at the book sitting open in front of him. He then stood up, placed his right foot on the page—the last double-page spread of the darkening room—then the left foot. He waited, then burst into tears, because he could not crawl inside. Goodnight Moon sold 6,000 copies during the first year after publication. Then demand declined and leveled off until 1953, when sales growth began again. During the late 1970s, a second generation of readers discovered the book, and its remarkable sales increased, aided by the development of paperback and book club editions. By 1990, Goodnight Moon had sold over 4 million copies in the United States alone.
During 1948 and 1949, in addition to her continuous composition of books, Brown also wrote lyrics for children's records and contracted with Good Housekeeping to contribute poetry for each monthly issue. She particularly enjoyed the Good Housekeeping association, as she was well paid and well treated by the adult publishing world.
In an article Brown wrote for the Hollins Alumnae Magazine in 1949, she described her creative process, explaining that she often dreamed her stories or wrote them down very quickly, but that she sometimes spent a year or more trying the story on children to make sure that she did not "include too much of the nonsense that someone who is no longer a child is apt to put into a children's book."
One of the distinguishing things about Brown's books is the harmony between the text and the illustrations. She collaborated with each artist, among them Clement Hurd, Garth Williams, Leonard Weisgard, and Jean Charlot, making sure that their drawings fulfilled the style and mood of the words. She said that a picture book should be "like a still life or a very short play or a static ballet where the only action is the turning of the pages." Besides her original books for children, Brown translated The Fables of LaFontaine and The Children's Year from the French. She also adapted the Uncle Remus and the Punch and Judy stories as well as the journals of William Bradford and the log of Christopher Columbus for a modern audience of young people.
As an adult, Brown lived most of the time in New York City, where she had both an apartment and "Cobble Court," an early 19th-century farmhouse in Manhattan, incongruously surrounded by factories and skyscrapers, and heated by wood fires. Here Brown kept her beagling memorabilia—a type of hunting in which one rides with the beagles in search of a jackrabbit—as well as a heterogeneous collection of fur rugs and chairs, and her own efforts as a painter. Brown spent her summers at Vinal Haven, Maine, where she bought "The Only House," a house with no modern conveniences on an isolated island.
Although she had many friends during her life, and a series of older women who served as her mentors, Brown at times was troubled by estrangements within her family and by the failure of several love relationships. In addition, her unwillingness to attend to the financial details of her contracts led to rather pressing money problems during the last years of her life.
In 1952, Brown was planning to be married. That year, she traveled to France for the release of the French translation of Mr. Dog and, while there, contracted appendicitis. After a successful operation, she died suddenly of an aneurism. Brown left behind a list of "books under construction," many of which were published posthumously.
Much of Margaret Wise Brown's work still endures. She seemed to enter the child's world, for many of her books center around little things, little animals, even little policemen and firemen. It is a world in proportion to the child, in which someone three feet tall can feel comfortable. It is a warm and secure environment where little fur animals cuddle together. Yet she created a world that stretches children's imagination and encourages the child to think and to explore. "What do you think was inside that egg?" she would ask, or "It began to snow. Could Muffin hear that?"
Brown's books are usually without a plot. In fact, she admitted that she hated writing plots. But to a child whose life is a series of incidents rather than a developing tale, the lack of a plot may more closely mirror reality. She was unsentimental about her work and about children. As Leonard Marcus has said, Margaret Wise Brown's books have "an underlying emotional truthfulness and honesty about them that is both salutary and rare." They show "a clear eyed respect for the young."
Bechtel, Louise Seaman. "Margaret Wise Brown: Laureate of the Nursery," in The Horn Book. Vol. 34. June 1958, pp. 173–186.
Blair, Susie. "As We Remember Her … A Tribute to Margaret Wise Brown," in Hollins Alumnae Magazine. Vol. XXVI. June 1953, pp. 15–17.
Bliven, Bruce. "Child's Best Seller," in Life. December 2, 1946, pp. 59–65.
Brown, Margaret Wise. "Writing for Children," in Hollins Alumnae Magazine. Vol. XXII. Winter 1949, pp. 13–14.
Marcus, Leonard S. Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992.
Margaret Wise Brown's books, manuscripts, and other biographical materials as well as records and filmstrips are located at the Westerly Public Library, Westerly, Rhode Island.
Hollins College Library, Roanoke, Virginia, also holds some correspondence as well as her books and articles.
Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia
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