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.
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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.”
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.