Even if you don’t recognize her name now, Margaret Wise Brown was probably your favorite author at one time. She wrote the beloved children’s classics good night moon and The Runaway Bunnyalong with some 100 other books, published and unpublished, over the course of her lifetime.
Known as the “laureate of the nursery,” Brown introduced millions of children to a new literary movement that prized emotion over rationality and reflected the real texture and sounds of children’s worlds. But she also enjoyed an iconic life filled with what today we might call “chaotic bisexual energy.” Some called her mercurial; others mystical, quixotic or spirited. But it’s safe to say she was undoubtedly a rare presence, and a powerful one at that.
In college, Brown studied writers like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, but it wasn’t until she overheard her intended fiance laughing with her father about how he planned to clip her wings that Brown decided to break off the engagement, move to New York City and make good on her literary talents.
There was one problem with her plan, however: Her writing didn’t sell. So Brown enrolled in a teacher’s college, called the Bureau of Educational Experiments’ Cooperative School for Student Teachers (better known as Bank Street), which was part of the cultural renaissance taking place in Greenwich Village at the time. The founder of the school was a woman named Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and she soon recognized the spark and talent in Brown.
Mitchell had developed a new storytelling model that she called “here and now.” It emphasized realism and familiar real-world settings over the moral fables and fairy tales of the past. Very young children, according to Mitchell, didn’t enjoy the abstraction and fantasy of older kids’ books. Instead, young readers and pre-literate preschoolers enjoyed books that saw the world from their vantage point –– a mesmerizing mix of colors, noises and smells. Mitchell suggested that Brown start with the familiar and let kids enjoy the “here and now” of her stories from her.
To fine-tune her senses in this regard, Brown spent a November night in a barn that belonged to a friend. She quieted herself and enjoyed the tiny thrill of “listening to the rumbling of cows’ bellies and the purring of farm cats.” Over time, she marveled at how children engaged with the world while so fully immersed in their senses. “When you talk to a child, he may not be listening to you at all — he will just be feeling the fur collar on your coat,” Brown once wrote to a former professor.
Likewise, as Anna Holmes reported in her excellent profile of Brown in the new yorker, Brown lamented how much adolescence and adult life mutes the openness we show as children, envying the free-minded liberty of the typical five-year-old and their sense of word play in particular. “Here, perhaps, is the stage of rhyme and reason: ‘Big as the whole world,’ ‘Deep as a giant,’ ‘Quiet as electricity rushing about the world,’ ‘Quiet as mud.’ All these are five-year-old similes. Let the grown-up writer for children equal or better them if he can.”
It helped as well that Brown had kept her child-like spark alive throughout her own adulthood. When she was nearing 40, she spent a weekend “painting glow-in-the-dark stars over the bed in her New York apartment,” and when she earned her royalty check for the first book she ever published, she immediately spent it all on a cart of fresh flowers, which she used to decorate her apartment.
In her personal life, too, Brown pushed against archetypes and social expectations of the era. After leaving her fiance behind her, Brown next found love in the arms of a woman who was having an affair with the same married man as Ella Brown was. The romantic-rival-turned-paramour went by the name Michael Strange, a nom de plume she had chosen in the hopes that her poetry by her would be taken more seriously. Strange had been previously married to the iconic actor John Barrymore, whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore. After Strange left Barrymore, she moved into the apartment next to Brown. Strange was a full 20 years older than Brown, and yet, for the next decade, the pair lived as a passionate couple.
Brown was also a woman of pronounced contrasts and contradictions. (She famously even told a reporter, “I don’t particularly like children.”) As Holmes noted in the new yorker, “Though many of her picture books were populated with cute animals, she wore wolfskin jackets, had a fetish for fur and hunted rabbits on weekends.” Similarly, as a child, she counted “along her her closest companions a cat, a collie, two squirrels and dozens of rabbits.” But “after one of the rabbits died, Brown skinned it.”
Yet, despite her penchant for a morbid curiosity and dark sense of humor, she was equally kind and caring. Her sister de ella Roberta recalled how when she and Brown were girls, they’d enjoy their own little private “bedtime ritual of greeting the objects and the sounds around them and then bidding them good night,” an activity Brown would later enshrine in good night moon.
Speaking of which, before publishing it in 1947, Brown knew that the look and feel of good night moon would be as important as the texture and sound of her words, and so, she asked a close friend, illustrator Clement Hurd, to lend his brilliance to her story. As Holmes writes, the book was enriched by how “Hurd’s illustrations, in deep jewel tones, slowly dim, panel by panel, and a soft scrim of stars outside the window begins to brighten.”
Sadly, however, just three years after Brown’s great success with good night moon, Strange passed away. While a devastating personal blow, it also freed Brown to find a new way for herself. As one of her biographers recorded, “She was comfortable in her solitude. Ella she belonged to herself and only herself.”
But then she found a second great love — James “Pebble” Rockefeller Jr., from, of course, those Rockefellers. The two enjoyed a passionate courtship, and he asked her for her hand in marriage. Before any kind of wedding could take place, though, Brown decided to jet off for a solo adventure across Europe. She was slowed down only by a medical emergency in France that required surgery.
On November 13, 1952, Brown was scheduled to be released from the hospital. She’d written to Rockefeller that her plan was to be carried out of the hospital “in a sedan chair by four of the village boys.” In that inimitable spirit, when the medical staff came to check on her one last time, a nurse inquired about how she was feeling. Brown kicked up a leg high over her head, and responded, “Grand!” Unfortunately, the sudden kick loosened a blood clot, which made the quick trip to her brain from her. She was dead before the day was over, at the age of 42.
Shortly beforehand, Brown had written to Rockefeller indicating that she was pregnant: “In spite of the chance that it might be other complications… my heart is more happy thinking that we might have conceived together. Even if we lose it this time we know we can do it again.”
Obviously, Brown never had the chance to bear children of her own. But she still understood that her legacy de ella would live on in the imaginations of the millions of children who had read her books de ella (or whose parents had read her books de ella to them). “How many children have you?” she asked herself in a note that was published in 1945.
“I have 50 books,” she responded.