Do Childish People Write Better Children’s Books?
The soothing anthem Goodnight Moon was written by someone so restless.
For all the years that I had been reading Goodnight Moon to some child or another, I had been picturing its author as a plump, maternal presence, someone like the quiet old lady in the rocking chair whispering, “Hush,” and so I was surprised to see, in a bored, casual dip into Google, the blonde, green-eyed, movie-starish vixen, and attendant accounts of her lesbian lover, her many male lovers, her failure to settle down, and tragic early death.
Margaret Wise Brown, or “Brownie” as her friends called her, did not harbor sentimental notions and was not overly devoted to bunnies and chubby toddlers. In a Life profile the reporter expressed surprise that the tender creator of so many rabbit-themed books would enjoy hunting and shooting rabbits, and Margaret replied: “Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”
One of Margaret Wise Brown’s offhand descriptions of childhood makes me think that she is nearer to childhood than the rest of us, inside it in a way that most of us can’t quite imagine or get to: She talks about the “painful shy animal dignity with which a child stretches to conform to a strange, adult social politeness.” Could there be a better, more intimate expression of that awkward childhood relation to the adult world?
Also preternaturally incisive about that stage of life is her statement about the purpose of kids’ books: “to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar.” Putting both the jogging and the comforting together is too resplendent an insight for an expert on childhood and seems to belong instead to a denizen of it.
Is it possible that the most inspired children’s book writers never grow up? By that I don’t mean that they understand or have special affection or affinity toward children, but that they don’t understand adulthood, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It may be that they haven’t moved responsibly out of childhood the way most of us have, into busy, functional, settled adult life.
Margaret Wise Brown’s life was full of what her admirers like to call whimsy and other people might call childlike behavior. She spent her first royalty check on an entire flower cart full of flowers. At her house in Maine, which she called “The Only House,” she had an outdoor boudoir with a table and nightstand and a mirror nailed to a tree, along with an outside well that held butter and eggs, and wine bottles kept cold in a stream; one could easily imagine a little fur family living in “The Only House,” but it was just her friends, associates, editors, and lovers passing through. She was once chastised by a hotel owner in Paris because she had brought giant orange trees and live birds into her room. The orange trees might have been OK, the owner thought, but the live birds were a little de trop.
It seems also that she could be annoying the way only an energetic 7-year-old could be: A friend asks her the time, and she says, “What time would you like it to be?” She had a group called the Bird Brain Society, in which the members could declare any day Christmas and the rest would come over and celebrate it. She was, in other words, one of those people whose magnetism owes something to the fact that the line between play and life was never entirely clear to her.
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.