Why has Margaret Wise Brown’s picture book Goodnight Moon sold upward of 48 million copies? To the adult eye, it’s appealingly illustrated but oddly written, with rhymes that seem improvised and a meter that turns itself off and on. It has none of the virtuoso wit, rigor, or invention of, say, Dr. Seuss. But generations of parents can attest to this little book’s soothing powers. Like most of the hundreds of children’s books, poems, and songs Brown wrote during her short life, Goodnight Moon is less a story than an incantation. It summons a cocoon around reader and listener, a sensation of being pulled out of the hurly-burly of the world into a pocket of charmed tranquility. Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown, replicates this spell for adult readers.
Brown was unconventional. The daughter of a well-off importer from a distinguished family (her grandfather was a senator and candidate for vice president), she never married or had children of her own, choosing a free-spirited career in Greenwich Village during the 1930s and conducting a decadelong relationship with a flamboyant society woman who had once been married to John Barrymore. She lived part of every year in the only house she ever purchased, an abandoned quarry master’s shack without running water or electricity, on an island in Maine. Although most of her books feature small furry animals as their heroes, Brown was herself a joyful hunter. One of her favorite activities was “beagling,” in which people, dressed much like traditional fox hunters but without the horses, run through the countryside after packs of dogs chasing down a rabbit.
On the other hand, Brown wasn’t exactly Edna St. Vincent Millay, either, breaking rules and hearts while blazing across the literary firmament like a comet. She rebelled in a quiet, cozy fashion reminiscent of her books. For Millay, a foreign adventure consisted of roughing it across Albania dressed in native costume; for Brown, it was deciding on a whim to join a group of nice young men on a bicycling tour through Cornwall. “I have been ecstatic; but I have not been happy,” Millay once wrote in her diary. Brown, about 20 years Millay’s junior but living by a similar code of Greenwich Village bohemianism, illustrated how such a life might look if the pursuit of happiness took precedent over ecstasy.
Gary’s is not the first biography of Brown. An earlier book, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard S. Marcus, a historian of children’s publishing, appeared in 1992. In the Great Green Room, however, is based on a cache of unpublished papers, including many journals and letters, that Gary obtained from Brown’s younger sister. Gary has written the book as an intimate, immersive narrative, closely following the chronological unfolding of Brown’s life and focusing almost entirely on how Brown experienced the events described. Marcus’ book, by contrast, is all context, explaining where Brown fits in the evolution of children’s literature, a field dominated in her day by strong personalities like Anne Carroll Moore, head of the New York Public Library’s children’s department, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the innovative Bank Street College of Education, where Brown worked during the ’30s.
At that time, most children’s librarians believed that fantasy, in the form of classic fairy and folk tales, made the best reading for kids. Mitchell and other progressive educators strongly disagreed, arguing for an approach called “Here-and-Now” that represented the world children actually live in. Brown’s own books don’t quite fit the formula of her mentor, but she worked with Mitchell on writing and compiling textbooks and other materials, and wrote and edited titles for a Bank Street–affiliated publishing company. She was generally in Mitchell’s camp. Gary explains none of this, although she does note that “the head librarian at the New York Public Library” (presumably Moore, although she is never named) “was still resistant to Margaret’s style” and refused to order Goodnight Moon. With so little background, the decision seems merely perverse and capricious, the act of a picture-book villain. Neither does Gary acknowledge that Moore, with her acolytes in libraries across the nation, was regarded as a fearsome power in children’s publishing, even though knowing this makes the eventual success of Goodnight Moon all the more impressive.
The impressively productive Brown wrote under several pseudonyms, penning four or more titles per year for Golden Books alone. (Several chapters in In the Great Green Room mention Brown working on contracts for as many as five or six publishers at once.) Golden Books were sold in drug and department stores rather than via the traditional bookstore circuit and therefore could be produced in large quantities at a cover price that made children’s books accessible to many families for the first time. But the books were also controversial among librarians because of their relatively cheap production values and (gasp!) lack of slipcovers. Children’s librarians, who saw themselves as crusaders for quality in a sector of publishing previously marked by slipshod and cavalier standards, regarded anything redolent of a low-budget series with suspicion. (And in their defense, the children’s book market had been flooded with trashy series in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as, intermittently, it has been since.) This became another reason to anathematize Golden Books, which were for decades shunned by library buyers.
Again, you won’t find much of this background in In the Great Green Room, although Gary does explain why the more generous royalties provided by Golden Books made publishing with them desirable to Brown. This despite the fact that, in the interest of branding, Golden’s authors didn’t always receive the credit they deserved. The earliest editions of The Color Kittens, one of Brown’s most iconic books for Golden, didn’t even feature her name (or those of illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen) on the cover. Goodnight Moon, published by Harper and Brothers, did from the very start.
Whether such issues ever bothered Brown is unclear, but a recurring theme in both biographies is her disappointment in her inability to write successfully for adults. After a debutante-ish youth featuring stints at Swiss boarding schools and a women’s college, Brown jilted her fiancé when she overheard him and her father laughingly exchange strategies for controlling her. She moved to New York, intent on becoming a writer, but with no very clear notion of what she wanted to write. Her idol was Gertrude Stein. She counted editors at the New Yorker, acclaimed playwrights, and many artists among a close circle of friends, and her gang engaged in such mildly madcap escapades as founding a club whose members could declare any random day on the calendar to be Christmas. However, after a few years of failing to find publishers for her stories and poems, Brown applied to Bank Street with the intention of getting a teaching certificate. Instead, Mitchell hired her to write, and her remarkable knack for speaking to small children emerged.
What was the source of this knack? Brown herself considered the possibility that she was, in Gary’s words, “unable to grow up.” Her picture book texts—with their repetitions, impulsive digressions, and eccentric non sequiturs—always sound a bit like a story a child is making up as she goes along, or, rather, like the story that child would be trying to tell if she could only make the words come out right. Many great children’s authors replicate the tone of a beloved grown-up, but Brown, more than any other, speaks with the voice of a child.
Perhaps that’s why her adult life had an exuberant but somewhat half-baked quality. True, Brown’s romances sounds racily adventurous—for many years she was simultaneously involved with a man she met in Maine and the woman who went by the pen name Michael Strange, an androgynous “semi-celebrity” who once published a best-selling book of erotic poetry and who liked to swan around in eccentric clothes talking about art. But this arrangement was less polyamory than low self-esteem; Brown wanted to settle down with a life partner, but she was chronically attracted to unavailable people who suspiciously resembled her distant and critical parents. More than once, she considered herself to be part of a couple, only to have the man suddenly turn up with a fiancée or wife. For all her flamboyance, Strange concealed her relationship with Brown from the upper-crust New York milieu in which she was raised and insisted that their letters to each other be written in code. She also criticized Brown’s diction and grammar, and belittled her for writing “baby books.” Brown’s friends could not understand why Brown—young, blond, pretty, intelligent, lively, talented, and eventually one of the most successful children’s authors in the country—put up with her.
But all this makes Brown’s life sound sadder than it was. Occasionally melancholy is closer to the mark. Her relationships, for all their persistent frustrations, gave her much joy, and Gary successfully conveys how the delight that Brown took in her merry friends, her summers in Maine, and her work suffused most of her days. Besides, she was lucky in a realm that many Manhattanites consider even more important that love: real estate. Having moved into Strange’s apartment building, Brown decided she needed a writing studio and went roaming the streets of the Upper East Side in quest of a tiny farmhouse she had once seen in a photograph, a clapboard remnant of the island’s pastoral past. She not only found it but was able to rent it immediately. (The building was uninsulated and had no electricity, a recurring theme in Brown’s domiciles.) It stood under a peach tree behind a tiny cobblestone courtyard. Clement Hurd used its fireplace as the model for the fireplace in Goodnight Moon. Only Margaret Wise Brown could manage to live in 20th-century Manhattan and an enchanted cottage at the same time.
The fairy-tale tinge of In the Great Green Room can occasionally be perplexing. I found myself unsure of the class and financial status of the various figures in the book, and therefore disoriented when, for example, someone who seemed to be a rich lady had to get a job in a department store. Yet this faint aura of unreality made the book into a blessed retreat during a rough season, a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse or Barbara Pym novel. The Depression and World War II passed without troubling Brown and her circle much. Brown’s problems were not overwhelming, while her pleasures were concrete and vividly conveyed on these pages. She pines a bit over her doomed loves, chills butter in the well behind her Maine cottage, and writes The Runaway Bunny, The Little Fur Family, The Little Island, and The Important Book.
Then, finally, she met Prince Charming: James Stillman “Pebble” Rockefeller Jr. (a grandnephew of John D.), who was preparing to board a sloop called Mandalay for a three-year voyage around the world. The two fell in love, got engaged, and planned to turn the excursion into a honeymoon, but first Brown had to wrap up some business in France. While there, she underwent an emergency appendectomy, followed by mandatory bed rest. When the time came for her to leave the hospital, a nurse asked her how she was feeling. “Grand!” Brown said, doing a one-legged cancan kick to prove it. The kick jarred loose a blood clot that had formed in her leg, causing an embolism that killed her almost immediately. She was 42. It was both a shocking demise and somehow perfectly in keeping with the verve with which she lived. Rockefeller, still manifestly dazzled by her, contributes a foreword to In the Great Green Room where he describes Brown as an “island in a limitless sea, radiating light farther than any lighthouse.” She missed going to sea with him in his beautiful pea-green boat, but she never did have to grow up.
In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary. Flatiron Books.
Read all the articles in the Slate Book Review.