'Goodnight Moon' Author Margaret Wise Brown Was No Old Lady Whispering Hush

Jan 22, 2017

Children's book doyenne Margaret Wise Brown is having a big week. A new biography by Amy Gary, called The Great Green Room, has just been released, along with a previously unpublished picture book called North, South, East, West. And, it's been 75 years since The Runaway Bunny first left home. Weekend Edition books editor Barrie Hardymon talks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the thread of adventure that runs through Brown's life and work.

Of the more than 100 published and unpublished books written by the intrepid and prolific Margaret Wise Brown, there is probably none more well-worn than Goodnight Moon. In my own nursery no less than four copies have passed through. One became so battered that it fell apart at the old lady whispering hush — split into two parts, invocation ("In the great green room") and benediction ("Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere").

Goodnight Moon, and indeed most of Brown's exceptional and quirky bibliography, are that perfect marriage of mesmerizing for children and tantalizing for adults. They're a pleasure to read — precise and rhythmic — words that don't rhyme still harmonize so beautifully that even the most halting reader can become a poet, telling her child a blessing.

It's tempting to believe that Brown was herself the old lady whispering hush, but it's gratifying to find from her two biographies (Amy Gary's recent In the Great Green Room and Leonard Marcus' 1992 Awakened By the Moon) that she was a babe — seriously, she glows like Carole Lombard — and more importantly, she was a rebel.

When she received her first check for writing, she didn't buy necessities or even champagne, but an entire cart full of flowers. She had dramatic and tumultuous love affairs with both men and women. She was ambivalent about her audience, famously telling a reporter, "I don't particularly like children."

She may not have liked them, but she knew them. Brown's books are stories told through the eyes of children, with equal parts wonder and terror at the infinite world, and a brave yearning for independence. The criminally underread Mister Dog is about a dog and a boy's mastery of their own lives — "Crispin's Crispian: the dog who belonged to himself." (It's also got a nice recipe for bone broth in it.)

In Little Fur Family, the little "fur child" explores the wood all by himself, out 'till sunset. My youngest boy exclaims in joy and amazement, "Mama, he was gone all day!" It's inspiring and reassuring; the fur child returns for supper.

A new, previously unpublished book of hers, North, South, East, West, hits the same notes. A bird yearning to see the world flies in all directions, only to find that home is best, and to sing the same song of encouragement to her own little birds. And the little rabbit in The Runaway Bunny tries every method to run away. He becomes a fish. He walks a tightrope. He turns himself into a rock, for god's sake!

Reactions to The Runaway Bunny follow the growth of the child — little children love it, seduced by the sheer variety of adventures. ("A crocus in a hidden garden" is of particular interest in my house.) As a teenager, I found it had grown icky; adult children on a second reading find the intensity is too much for a grown child trying to separate from their parent.

But for a new parent, cradling a bath-damp child in her arms — it describes the paradox of child-rearing in a disturbingly precise way. It is a call to action. Can you be the mother rabbit? Steadfast, long-suffering, resourceful — ever-present? And more importantly, should you be?

In the end, the answer may lie in Margaret Wise Brown's own brave and bold life: The world is measureless and vast. Live in it with curiosity and intensity. And bring snacks.

"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.

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Margaret Wise Brown's children's books are some of the most loved. Here's a hint to help you think of one - just two words - "Goodnight Moon." There are countless others, including "Runaway Bunny," which happens to celebrate its 75th anniversary this year. And now a previously unpublished book called "North, South, East, West" will hit the shelves and bedside tables this week.

Our books editor Barrie Hardymon joins us to chat about that new book and the fascinating woman who wrote it.

Hey there.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about her.

HARDYMON: I think most people think that Margaret Wise Brown was, like, the old lady whispering hush in the "Goodnight Moon" books. But first of all, she was actually kind of a babe. And second of all, in real life, she was this really intrepid woman. She was quite adventurous. There's a new biography out of her now by Amy Gary called "In The Great Green Room." And in that biography, we come to find out that she was this real rebel in a lot of ways. She was born into a world of privilege but was this very mischievous child who drank and smoked and then went on to pursue a really quite successful career in children's literature.

But the interesting thing is she actually really wanted to succeed as a writer for adults and wasn't that fond of children. In fact, at one point she told a reporter that she didn't especially like children and that she wouldn't let anybody get away with anything just because they're little.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think to some people who don't like "Goodnight Moon," who actively hate "Goodnight Moon," that would not be surprising (laughter).

HARDYMON: Right, right. Well, because the sound of these books can be quite odd. She is a very, very strange woman, and her life kind of reflected that. My favorite anecdote about her comes at her death, actually. She died at the age of 42. She had these tumultuous relationships with both men and women. And when she finally found love with this man named James Stillman Rockefeller - he was of the actual Rockefeller - junior...


HARDYMON: And on their honeymoon, she was meeting him to go on this three-year, round-the-world trip. She...


HARDYMON: Right - As one does, as one does. She had an emergency appendectomy and was on bed rest. And when it came time to leave the hospital, a nurse asked her how she was feeling. She kicked up her leg like a Rockette and loosed a blood clot...


HARDYMON: ...That killed her almost immediately. So it is certainly a telling anecdote about her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This irrepressible spirit, this rebel almost - what do you think about her life and her work appeals to children?

HARDYMON: First of all, the thing that sometimes annoys parents, the incredibly spare style - part of that is that she was part of this - you know, her friends included playwrights and New Yorker editors and, you know, Gertrude Stein was her idol. So there's - I think it influenced her style very much. But I think there's this other layer to it, which I think you can see with "The Runaway Bunny," which is this book that people either find very reassuring or...


HARDYMON: ...Completely terrifying, where a little bunny who is about to - you know, wants to run away. And children have that feeling. But then the mother says, I will always run after you. And each page is another place that she will find it. So children want that sense of independence. They want to get away, and yet they also want to know, like at the end of the book, that Mom is there and she's got carrot snacks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You actually gave me "North, South, East, West," and I read it to my 4-year-old. And she loved it. And that's a different kind of book than "Runway Bunny."

HARDYMON: It's almost like a bookend - right? - to "Runaway Bunny."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A little bit.

HARDYMON: It's sort of the same set up with birds. So there's a little bird who wants to discover the world. He tries north. He tries south. He tries west. But of course, he wants to be east, which is where home is. And there's this lovely ending where the little bird moves on and is telling the same story of "North, South, East, West" to her own eggs as they're hatching out into the world.

So it's a little less intense than the mother bunny following you all over the world. And that is the thing, I think, that really appeals to parents when it does, which is that this relationship that you're having with your child - you are - it's - they're striving for independence. You're trying to keep them safe. You are marching further and further towards separation. And so - and it's sort of a pleasure to read an author who really understands that the process of parenting is - the real heartache of it is that you are going to lose some part of your child as they...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is making me so sad.

HARDYMON: I know. I know. But I also think there is this sort of wonderful thing - right? - that kids also can see that the world is so wide.


HARDYMON: You know, my - I read, of course, "Goodnight Moon" to my littlest guy. And when you get to that bit, you know, goodnight, nobody. He said - Mama, who's nobody? And it's like, well, guess what. Infinity is out there, my friend. But I'm right here. And that's kind of this wonderful thing - right? - that she gave us these wonderful books that showed children the width of the world and give parents and children the feeling that they still will always be together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barrie Hardymon on the very deep books of Margaret Wise Brown. She is our books editor here at WEEKEND EDITION.

HARDYMON: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.