Amy Gary on The Discovery of Unpublished Works by Margaret Wise Brown
How did you feel when you first saw that big trunk full of Margaret Wise Brown’s unpublished work? How did that discovery change your life?
My first thought when I looked into the trunk was that all of those manuscripts couldn’t be unpublished. The papers were stacked end to end! It didn’t seem possible that Margaret, who had over 100 books published at that time, could have written so many more books. Since that day, Margaret has been an ever-present part of my life. I’ve placed dozens of those manuscripts into the hands of phenomenal publishers, but there are still a few to go.
This book is obviously a labor of love. How long did it take you to write? Can you describe the process? Explain how your approach differs from other biographers of Brown’s.
In some ways, I’ve been writing this book for decades. In the early 1990’s I interviewed people close to her to preserve their memories of her. I’m so glad I had that opportunity because only her goddaughter and fiancé remain today.
I want readers of my biography to see the world through Margaret’s eyes. To do that, I used her writing techniques. She researched a subject as much as possible, then immersed herself in an experience – taking notes on what she saw, heard, and felt. I did the same thing with this book. I dove into her diaries, letters, and manuscripts to understand what she was sensing, thinking, and feeling at those important moments in her life.
There are biographies on Margaret for almost every age and interest level, which is wonderful. Her books are far better known than her name or how she pushed children’s books forward or how she dared to live and love differently than many women of her time.
Brown’s short life was not only filled with numerous manuscripts but also a multitude of interesting events and colorful personalities. How did you make decisions about what to include and what not to include? Were any of these decisions particularly difficult?
Margaret moved in so many interesting artistic and social circles that it was hard to stay away from anecdotes and stick with her story. Likewise, there were parts of Margaret’s life that were important to add, even though they were tough for me to understand. For example, she had two emotionally abusive relationships. It boggled me that someone so seemingly self-assured would choose to remain with lovers who were cruel or non-committal. However, telling her true story required that I examine all facets of her complex nature.
I’m proud of the publications that came from that trunk – we’ve had a recent New York Times bestseller and one named to the list of best books for children in 2016 – so I wouldn’t seek approval of my work from her. Instead, I would really like to know where the manuscript for “Squeaky Box” is. She mentions it in letters and on lists, but I can’t find it!
I would spend a day with Margaret walking through a bookstore and a library. It would be such a treat to watch her face as she sees all the innovations in children’s books!
How did Margaret Wise Brown change children’s literature?
When Margaret first began writing for children, it was for a textbook. She worked at The Bureau of Educational Experiments, now known as Bank Street, where her mentor, Lucy Mitchell sought to level the educational playing field. Prior to this, girls were educated separately and took less rigorous courses that ultimately excluded them from advanced degrees and better jobs. Lucy found that science and math textbooks were gender neutral, but literature was primarily fables and fairy tales. Those stories were not only too violent for children, they also demeaned girls and set marriage as the primary goal in a girl’s life. In writing for that literature textbook, Margaret learned to create stories that had universal appeal. Lucy once said that, while she created this approach to writing for children, Margaret gave it wings.
Were you surprised to discover that Brown was a hunter? You relate how as a child, she skinned her own pet rabbit after it died!
It was one of the first things her sister told me about Margaret – probably because it is fairly shocking that someone who wrote so endearingly of small furry animals also enjoyed weekend rabbit hunts. In life and in literature, Margaret liked to jar expectations.
As a young teen she attended a boarding school in Switzerland that held classes in French, which had a negative impact on her grammar and spelling. As an adult, she worked hard to learn proper grammar and to speak more properly and distinctly. The people who knew her early in her life said her voice was thin and shaky, but those who met her later described it as low and lush. However, she remained a poor speller her whole life.
Brown’s love life was colorful, dramatic, and sad. That last chapter must have been difficult to write, because Brown had finally found happiness, yet it was completely cut short by her death.
In Jim Rockefeller, her fiancé at the time of her death, Margaret found her match in spirit and verve. She also felt fully loved for the first time in her life and couldn’t wait to (literally) sail off with him. Her happiness in those last months of her life make her sudden death so much more poignant. I hope that by the time this moment arrives in the book, the reader is grateful for life of this incredibly talented and fascinating woman.
Did Margaret Wise Brown have any idea of what her legacy might be, and could she ever have imagined the enormous and long-lasting popularity of Goodnight Moon? Did she have any idea of how special the manuscript was when she wrote it?
When she first began writing for children, she confessed to one of her college literature professor that she hoped to raise children’s books to the status of actual literature. So she would, no doubt, be pleased that the simple word pattern of Goodnight Moon touched so many children’s lives, and that the book is, by definition, literature. However, at the time of her death, Goodnight Moon was not at all a success. The executors of her estate valued it only at $200.
That this book reflected Margaret’s own life. She often, from childhood to adulthood, said goodnight to the things in her room because it comforted her. And the room? It was Margaret’s own. Her rocking chair, her big red bed, fireplace, and bright green walls. I’m not certain if the mouse was make believe or real. Neither would surprise me.
Can you imagine what sorts of things Brown might have accomplished had she lived longer? And how might she feel about today’s world of children’s books? What might she like and what might she dislike?
There were so many works in that trunk that were brilliant, but ahead of her time. Balls that turn into books and books that turn into puppets and stages – much of what she envisioned decades ago even now would be difficult to mass produce. She loved pushing the boundaries of the possible in publishing so I’m certain she would champion every innovation.
Giving children stories that were sugary or overwritten for sentimentality’s sake was unforgiveable, so she disliked books that talked down to children. She believed children are quite capable critics and that they want stories to meet them where they are emotionally and rationally as their world expands from their own bedroom to the outside world. Early in her writing career she learned to see children as explorers on the greatest adventure of their lives – that of childhood. Without question, her books helped guide them on that journey.
In a great green room, tucked away in bed, is a little bunny. “Goodnight room, goodnight moon.” And to all the familiar things in the softly lit room — to the picture of the three little bears sitting on chairs, to the clocks and his socks, to the mittens and the kittens, to everything one by one — the little bunny says goodnight.
In this classic of children’s literature, beloved by generations of readers and listeners, the quiet poetry of the words and the gentle, lulling illustrations combine to make a perfect book for the end of the day.
Are you interested in reading more books by Amy Gary? We recommend pre-ordering In the Great Green Room