Margaret Wise was an amazingly successful writer whose books have sold millions of copies. Brown developed an extraordinary talent to write for small children, perhaps unequaled in literature. Considered by many to be one of the greatest children’s writers of all time, Brown, is even regarded by many as the inventor of the modern children’s book. A contemporary of that other great children’s book author Doctor Seuss, her output during her brief career was prodigious, writing more than a hundred children’s books, many of which are still in print six decades after her death. No author before or since Margaret Wise Brown has managed to write books that reflect a natural impulse to amuse, delight and comfort small children.
Brown was born and lived her first five years at 118 Milton Street. Some might argue that Greenpoint had a negligible impact on her. However, memory was central to Brown’s creative process and she was able to vividly recall her earliest feelings on Milton Street. Brown continually stressed the importance of recollection in her creative process, saying that memory was the “ultimate source of the creative work.” She attributed her success to being able to reach down into the soul of the child that still lived within her and bring it to life.
Ironically, the great children’s writer never had any children of her own and had no great love for children, but she was uniquely able to understand a child’s world. The illustrator of her most successful work, Goodnight Moon, Clement Hurd commented, “Margaret Wise Brown wrote children’s books because she loved the English language and because she felt connected to her own childhood, not because she adored children.”
Her memories of her childhood, though, were not especially pleasant ones. She came from an unhappy family. Her parents often argued and they divorced when she was a young girl. The sensitive, highly perceptive Margaret must have sensed from an early age the unhappiness in her parents’ marriage. If she did not find joy in family life, however then she found it in language, even at the earliest age, composing her own songs, rhymes and poems as a toddler. When she wrote as an adult she had an amazing ear for the sounds and cadences of language, capturing the unique structure of children’s language and infusing it in her books. In 1935 Brown enrolled in Bank Street’s children’s writing workshop under the direction of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, an educator interested in the new field of literature for very young children. Brown spent hundreds of hours interviewing young children, swapping stories with them and learning what they wanted to hear. She developed an uncanny sense of how children communicate and she echoed children’s language in her own works.
And she realized her talent as a writer. Within a few short years, dozens of Margaret Wise Brown books reached bookstore shelves, with dozens more in the publishing pipeline. Brown said the stories wouldn’t stop flowing. She woke up with a “head full of stories” and by the time she could scribble them down more ideas would occur to her. She kept six publishers busy with her prolific output and created pen names to keep from flooding the market with Margaret Wise Brown titles.
In 1947 Brown conceived and wrote her classic, Goodnight Moon, all in one morning. A highly acclaimed bedtime story, it enumerates and then bids goodnight to all that a bunny at bedtime knows. In March 1953, the book had been spotlighted in Child Behavior, a syndicated parental advice column. “It captures the two-year-old so completely,” the authors wrote, “that it seems almost unlawful that you can hypnotize a child off to sleep as easily as you can by reading this small classic.”
She was wonderfully eccentric and people loved her for it. She lived in Manhattan, but found a cottage in the upper seventies. She used an entire royalty check to buy a flower stand. And she was part of a group that could proclaim any day of the year Christmas. Although wealthy, she chose to vacation in a house in Maine that lacked running water or electricity.
Margaret was in the prime of her life when she was struck dead on holiday in France by an embolism. Her sudden death at the age of 42 shocked everyone. The energetic, talented and unorthodox woman who breezed into their offices with ice cream for the staff on a hot day or fought to keep a four-syllable word in a simple text was suddenly gone from their lives, yet all of her colleagues and friends said the year of her death was by far, her happiest because she had just gotten engaged to be married to “Pebbles” Rockefeller, who shared her zest for life.