On page nine of our Summer 2014 catalog you’ll find Goodnight Songs, a collection of long-lost lullabies penned by popular children’s author Margaret Wise Brown. Her books Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny are classics cherished by millions of readers, but the story behind Goodnight Songs may be the beloved writer’s most extraordinary.
A Literary Pioneer
Born in Brooklyn in 1910, Margaret Wise Brown didn’t set out to become a bestselling children’s author. In fact, she never expressed much affection for children at all, telling Life magazine,“I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.” But after earning her degree in English literature from Hollins College and enrolling at Bank Street’s Cooperative School for Student Teachers in New York City, Brown was drawn to the Bank Street Writers Laboratory. There, a revolutionary “here-and-now approach” to children’s literature advocated for textbooks and readers that addressed “the everyday world and concerns of children” instead of fairy tales, legends, and nonsense rhymes. A chance meeting with a publisher at Bank Street steered Brown to publishing, and in 1937, she released When the Wind Blew, launching a writing career destined to influence generations of young readers.
Over the next fifteen years, Margaret Wise Brown wrote more than one hundred children’s books, becoming a central figure in what biographer Leonard Marcus describes as “the golden age of the American picture book.” She was among the first to write for children ages two to five and is credited with developing “the concept of the first durable board book—a staple of children’s books today.” She admitted that many of her stories came to her in dreams, and she spent months trying them out on children in order to perfect them. And yet she revealed in a 1949 interview with Hollins’s alumnae magazine, “I don’t think I am essentially interested in children’s books. I’m interested in writing, and in pictures. I’m interested in people and in children because they are people—little primitive people—keener in some ways then they themselves will be later on. And, I am interested in simplicity. In children’s books all these combine.”
Margaret Wise Brown was at the height of her prolific career when, in 1952, her life was cut tragically short. During a trip to Nice, France, she underwent routine abdominal surgery. To prove to her doctors that she was recovering well, she executed a flirty, high-leg kick—dislodging a blood clot that traveled to her heart and killed her almost instantly. She was just forty-two years old. Her sudden death was a terrible loss for the literary community…until a fortuitous meeting a half-century later revived her voice once more.
In 1990, Amy Gary, head of a small Alabama publishing company devoted to reprinting vintage children’s books, traveled to Vermont to visit Margaret Wise Brown’s sister Roberta Brown Rauch, in hopes of securing her permission to reissue some of Brown’s old works. She had no inkling she was about to discover “the treasure of a lifetime.”
“Sitting on the floor of Roberta’s house, looking through old copies of Margaret’s books, I followed a hunch, knowing how prolific she had been,” said Gary. “I asked Roberta if any of her sister’s unpublished manuscripts existed, even though I assumed that if they had, someone would have already found and published them.” Gary’s hunch paid off—big time. Rauch revealed a trunk stowed in her barn and packed full of hundreds of unpublished documents, including Brown’s notes and drafts for songs, poems, stories, and even musical scores. For in the years preceding her death, Brown had shifted her attention from children’s books to children’s music. As Gary explains in Goodnight Songs, “As [Brown] listened to children go about their lives, she realized that they made up songs about whatever it was they were doing at the time. She wanted to capture that spirit of a child’s world in her songs the way she had in stories. She thought if she could do that, perhaps children could retain that ability to express their thoughts in song, something that seems to disappear as we grow older.”
Gary knew immediately that a new book from Margaret Wise Brown would be greeted with joy by readers. But first she had to find the right publisher, grapple with issues of rights research, and struggle through the transcription of fifty-year-old drafts. (Some of Brown’s notes for songs were scribbled onto napkins.) Those details delayed the publication of Goodnight Songs for years, until the project finally found a home at Sterling Children’s Books. Yet as with all picture books, perfecting the text wasn’t enough. The new songs needed just the right illustrations to bring them to life for little readers. But rather than choosing a single artist for the project, Sterling opted for twelve, one for each poem. According to editor Meredith Mundy, “We asked illustrators who we love and admire and almost every one of them said ‘yes.’ The name ‘Margaret Wise Brown’ has that effect.”
When the finished product finally made its way to bookshelves in March of this year, readers everywhere—including the Bas Bleu editorial office!—rejoiced. Because there are a lot of great children’s authors in the world, but only one Margaret Wise Brown. Observes Gary, “People think writing for children is easy. But not only do you have to carry over the depth of emotion, you must do it in a way that speaks to children, their understanding, their sensibilities. When you consider what Brown was able to do—and the sheer volume—in her short life, it’s simply brilliant.”