Margaret Wise Brown

Children’s books. Juvenile literature. Young adult. The categories betray a certain unease. Madeleine L’Engle, asked about her success in writing juvenile fiction, replied that she has never written juvenile fiction; she has simply written novels. Margaret Wise Brown wrote books for children — mostly for young children, who are just discovering the spell of language joined to image. Her books are still read by children — and by parents who first read them or heard them as children themselves — because they were written without preconceptions about what a “children’s book” should be. Virginia Woolf and, especially, Gertrude Stein were among the mentors whose work Brown used in unexpected ways.

Brown’s life, too, as recounted by Leonard Marcus, undercuts whatever vague notions we might have of the author of GOODNIGHT MOON, MISTER DOG, and THE NOISY BOOK. In and out of psychoanalysis, never really at ease, Brown had a long, troubled relationship with the flamboyant and domineering Michael Strange (nee Blanche Oelrich), a third-rate poet and actress some twenty years her senior. Stylish and self-assured where Brown was habitually self-doubting, Strange had been married for eight years to the actor John Barrymore. Once outside Strange’s orbit, Brown met a recent Yale graduate, James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr., known to his friends as “Pebble.” (Yes, he was one of those Rockefellers.) Despite the difference in their agesthey were planning to marry when Brown died of a blood clot after an unplanned surgery while on vacation in France. She was forty-two years old.

Marcus’ narrative of Brown’s life is interwoven with a lively account of a golden age in American children’s books, including biographical sketches of some of the editors, writers, and illustrators whose camaraderie Brown enjoyed. The text is supplemented by photographs, notes and an index, and an extensive bibliography of Brown’s works.