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Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

Books like the Little House on the Prairie series, I think make all kids wonder about the authors of their books. We know what Laura Ingalls's life was like—who else had interesting lives? Are their stories inspired by their lives? Do they live in a garret doing nothing but write? Do they live glamorous lives? Maybe I just wondered those things because I was destined to work in book publishing (or vice versa). Regardless, it was a real treat to get to read this biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of hundreds of children's books, most famously, Goodnight, Moon, although my personal favorite is Runaway Bunny.

And I was not prepared for how interesting a like Brown's turned out to be! Wealthy, she went to prep schools and on to Hollins College where her grades initially would have likely gotten her turned out if the Depression hadn't hit and taken a toll on all colleges' enrollment. Afterwards, Margaret moved to New York City and got a job at Bank Street, the educational pioneer. She quickly transitioned from teaching to their publishing arm, working on textbooks in a very new style that emphasized children's experiences, multi-sensory experiences, and being sure not to talk down to kids. She never did anything by halves. She threw herself into this job, and into her own writing, and into her relationships. She was interested in a Carnegie in college but he married her friend. After a brief engagement to an Armistead , she later embarked on a long, tumultuous relationship with John Barrymore's ex-wife, Michael. And at the end of her life, she was engaged to a Rockefeller. She never married, never had kids, never achieved the literary success she'd long dreamed of, in terms of writing important, adult literature. But boy, did she leave a huge impact on children's literature. She didn't just write her books and textbooks, she helped a fledgling publisher as an editor for many years, discovering and encouraging many of the premier children's book illustrators of that era, including Clement Hurd who illustrated Goodnight, Moon.

Amy Gary had unprecedented access to Brown's journals and papers. At Margaret's sister's house, she found a trunk completely full of papers including dozens of unpublished manuscripts. (Gary is now the archivist for Brown's works.) Thanks to Brown's journals, this book feels so complete and whole, and you get her inner thoughts without the feeling that Gary is guessing at what Brown was feeling. It nearly has the feel of a third-person memoir.

Her life was fascinating, and this biography should not only be read by children's literature aficionados. It reads smoothly and trips along through the myriad adventures and books and homes and loves of Margaret Wise Brown's life, never feeling voyeuristic, but instead feeling like an unfurling of a rose, with more and more layers of petals.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

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