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

Margaret Wise Brown is the author of beloved children's books such as <em>Goodnight Moon </em>and <em>The Runaway Bunny</em>. She died suddenly at age 42, leaving behind a body of unpublished work.
HarperCollins Children's Books
Margaret Wise Brown is the author of beloved children's books such as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. She died suddenly at age 42, leaving behind a body of unpublished work.

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 A new biography by Amy Gary, called The Great Green Room, has just been released, along with a previously unpublished picture book called North, South, East, West.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Of the more than 100 published and unpublished books written by the intrepid and prolific Margaret Wise Brown, there is probably none more well-worn than Goodnight Moon.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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Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.