There’s no way to document this, obviously, but it seems safe to venture that millions of people in the world have read Margaret Wise Brown’s books without realizing they’ve done so. Mention her name and you'll get lots of blank stares; mention her best-known work, “Goodnight Moon,” and suddenly the tumblers snap into place: Oh right, her.
In real life, Brown was anything but forgettable. She was gorgeous, vivacious and luminous, a firefly in Hepburn slacks. She had stormy relationships with both men and women. One of her favorite pastimes was beagling, a sport that requires chasing hares on foot. She was partial to furs; she preferred writing with quill pens; in her Greenwich Village apartment, she held festive parties for the Birdbrain Club, her friends’ answer to the Algonquin Round Table.
Brown even died in a gesture of high-spirited defiance: After receiving an emergency appendectomy in France, she was asked by a nurse how she was doing. “Grand!” she replied, giving a cancan kick. It dislodged a blood clot in her leg, which swiftly traveled to her brain. She was 42.
“Goodnight Moon” is by far the most famous of Brown’s hundred or so picture books, and for good reason: It replicates the lulling, la-di-da cadences that toddlers use when they jabber to themselves, and it captures the strange tendency of young children to assign emotional lives to ordinary household objects. (Really, why not say goodnight to your comb and your brush and a bowl full of mush?)
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But, for my money, it’s “The Runaway Bunny” that shows why Brown had a touch of genius, and it’s to this book that my mind continually returned as I read “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown,” by Amy Gary, the former director of publishing at Lucasfilm.
At its heart, “The Runaway Bunny” is about the desire to be watched over and protected. This, I assume, is why Margaret Edson ended her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” with a retired professor tenderly reading the book to her former protégée, who lies dying of cancer in a hospital bed. To be forever looked after – what else would we crave when facing the terror of our own impermanence?
Being watched over was something that Brown, too, seemed to crave. Though she came from a pedigreed, well-to-do family, her childhood home was a lonely place. Her mother was a bitter depressive who vanished into her bedroom for days; her father traveled a great deal for work. (Eventually, they separated.)
As an adult, Brown was “needy” in her love relationships, Gary writes, and possessed of a desperate, almost childlike desire to please. Yet, until the last year of her life, she chose partners who were unsuitable and unattainable in every way – most notably, Bill Gaston, a hopeless alcoholic and serial philanderer, and Blanche Oelrichs (better known by her pen name, Michael Strange), a self-involved, thrice-married society bohemian who left her first husband for John Barrymore.
Brown may have led a vibrant, colorful life. But Gary only manages to render her in shades of taupe. Her sentences are strictly utilitarian. (“Margaret and Gratz had seen little of each other over the past few years, and they enjoyed the time together.”) Her early pages are teeming with dead-end digressions. They’re also packed with descriptions of decor and menus – the plastic-foam peanuts authors sometimes toss into a story to give it volume, without realizing that they’re adding no weight.
Far more baffling – criminal, actually – is that Brown’s voice is absent, entirely, from “In the Great Green Room” until the final page. Here is a woman who left behind diaries, letters and papers of all kinds. Why are we not hearing from this thrilling creature, celebrated for her ear, renowned for her sound? (Leonard S. Marcus’ 1992 biography, “Awakened by the Moon,” quotes liberally from her writing, achieving a far brighter effect.)
This omission is particularly odd in light of how frequently we’re told that Brown regretted never having written a serious book for adults. Quoting from her journals and correspondence would at least have given us a chance to hear her in an adult register – about this very regret, for one thing, but about countless other longings and fantasies, too. We’d have gotten a sense of her interior life in her own words.
Instead, we get Gary’s. She is a strangely passive-aggressive biographer – too timid to analyze Brown’s life in any large and meaningful way, yet presumptuous enough to speak for her. So relentless is Gary’s insistence on narrative omniscience that she refuses to quote almost anyone. I could find only one instance in which she used the words of another. It was on Page 113. It jumped out like a frog.
This seems a terrible missed opportunity. Gary drops tantalizing details into her portrait, suggesting that Brown, for all her glamour and success, really was suspended in the threads of a prolonged adolescence: As a grown woman, Brown painted glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of her apartment. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage to write for mature audiences. Once, she made a stab at an adult love story about a particular day at the zoo with Michael Strange. What came out was a story about a dog and a security guard.
Yet we never hear about these episodes in Brown’s own words. In an author’s note, Gary says that years ago, she found a huge new trunk of the author’s unpublished papers in the barn of Brown’s sister, Roberta. Yet apart from a few poems that serve as chapter epigraphs, I cannot discern how these papers enriched “In the Great Green Room.” Along with the book’s many other idiosyncrasies, it does not contain traditional footnotes.
Brown remains elusive and vague throughout, a shadow projected on a wall. When all the reader wants, as Brown wrote in “The Runaway Bunny,” is a tree to come home to.
In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown
By Amy Gary
Illustrated. Flatiron Books, $26.99, 288 pages