Do Childish People Write Better Children’s Books?
The soothing anthem Goodnight Moon was written by someone so restless.
Virginia Woolf captures this quality in her description of Lewis Carroll, “For some reason, we know not what, his childhood was sharply severed. It lodged in him whole and entire. He could not disperse it.” Lewis Carroll, a stuttering lifelong bachelor who preferred playing games with children for hours to adult company, was not alone in this respect. Maurice Sendak’s unhappy childhood seems bitterly, creatively, alive in him, though he had a very happy long-term relationship with a psychiatrist, Eugene. “I refuse to lie to children,” Sendak says, “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” And like Margaret Wise Brown, Kay Thomson, the author of the Eloise books, an actress, film star, and nightclub singer, apparently led a racy, interesting unsettled life, and said to those inquiring about who the little girl was based on: "Eloise is me! All me."
For Margaret Wise Brown, underneath all of this whimsicality or childlike behavior, there was of course some isolation and turmoil. Her relationship with her lesbian lover, Michael Strange, whom she privately, and perhaps not surprisingly called “Rabbit,” was rocky and tormented. Michael once took an illustrator aside and said, “Why don’t you marry Margaret and take her off my hands?” Margaret never had children of her own and her affairs were often unstable. The playful, ebullient social presence obscured periods of despair and loneliness.
But, anyway, just something to think about as you are reading, “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon. …” The great soothing anthem of millions of American childhoods was conjured by someone restless, unsettled. It maybe makes sense that the great dream or poem of domestic peace should come from someone for whom that peace is charged, elusive.
Margaret Wise Brown died tragically early at 42, though it should be noted that she died playfully. She was in France, hospitalized for appendicitis (“I’ve really enjoyed this odd French Hospital …” she wrote to a friend), and after the routine operation she seemed to be recovering uneventfully. One morning she kicked her leg can-can style to show a nurse how well she was, and an embolism killed her instantly.
At the time Margaret was about to be married to her much younger fiance, “Pebbles” Rockefeller. She was touring France, and he was sailing to meet her on his boat. It’s possible that she was just then on the verge of growing up or settling down or becoming more ordinary. Though one half imagines Pebbles Rockefeller sailing somewhere, and Margaret saying, “If you become a sailboat and sail away from me, I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.