Monday, October 15, 2012
October 15, 2012: Guest Post on Margaret Weis Brown
[This week, I have the wonderful opportunity to be a Celebrity Reader—emphasis on the celebrity, right? Right?!—for both of my sons’ elementary school classes. So in honor of that occasion, I’ll feature blog posts on children’s books and authors and American Studies. Please share your own favorite books and authors (or problematic ones—I’m looking at you, Curious George), and any other thoughts on children’s lit, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
[Ilene Railton has been studying and working in the field of early childhood education for her whole adult life—starting with her graduate work at Bank Street, where she studied with the poet Claudia Lewis who had been strongly influenced by Margaret Wise Brown. She has also taught at and directed preschools and day care centers, served as a child care resource and referral officer, and taught and counseled and worked with kids and families in multiple Head Start-like programs (including currently with the Albemarle County Bright Stars program). And she’s been kinda crucial to the development of this AmericanStudier too.]
One hundred thirty words: simple, repetitive, whimsical and peaceful, and powerful enough to change the direction of children’s literature. This was Goodnight Moon, published in 1947, written by a young woman named Margaret Wise Brown. It was not her first book, in fact five wonderful books came before it, and 21 others followed. Her name is not particularly well known, except to parents who have read the story of the bunny in the green room, falling asleep to the cadences of love and safety that all children respond to. Margaret Wise Brown listened to the child inside and those around her, and brought a new kind of literature to the children of the world.
Brown was born in 1910 in
Brooklyn. She died two weeks after an appendectomy
in 1952. She grew up in an unhappy home, and was estranged from her father and
siblings for at least part of her brief life. She went to boarding school, and
then to Dana Hall, Nice, France Hollins College
and on to work at the Bank Street
Experimental School in NYC. At Bank Street she worked
under the guidance of the educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell,
who created and tested a philosophy of the “here and now” with children. Brown
worked with children in the writing laboratory at Bank Street,
encouraging them to swap stories with her. She even brought illustrators into
kindergarten classes to draw in front of the children. She wanted their ideas,
and the way their saw the world to be at the center of her work.
“One can but hope to make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed as he follows the simple rhythm to its logical end. It can jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar, lift him for a few minutes from his own problems of shoelaces that won’t tie, and busy parents and mysterious clock time, into the world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of a story.” This is how Brown described what she did with her books. She told friends that she woke every morning with a head full of stories, and she rushed to write them all down. She kept six different publishers busy, and wrote under several pen names so as not to flood the market with Margaret Wise Brown books. In fact, her book The Little Island, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, won the Caldecott Medal in 1947. The author was listed as Golden MacDonald.
Brown also wanted all children to have access to books and stories. She wanted the cereal companies to put stories on the backs of their cereal boxes. When Golden books first appeared on the scene, she supported the idea of affordable books and wrote several stories for Golden that are still in print today. Many librarians and reviewers at that time felt that quality publishing standards were being lost with the publication of these books. Brown was quoted as saying, “The quality of a book is determined by the writing and the illustrations, not its printing.”
Margaret Wise Brown, a whimsical, eccentric creative genius, never married, and never had any children of her own. She had the ability to see and feel the world the way a child does, with silliness and gravity, and some nonsense words thrown in for good measure. She actually died kicking up her leg to show her doctor how good she felt after surgery. (A clot was dislodged and traveled to her heart). Who knows how many books, poems, plays, and music we would have had she lived a long life. Don’t wait to have a child! Open the book, enter the great, green room…….
PS. Nominations, responses, perspectives, ideas for the weekend's post? Share 'em please!10/15 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two of the 20th century’s most impressive and influential writers, thinkers, and Americans, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.