1946 LIFE magazine profile of Margaret Wise Brown
My kid really loves Little Fur Family and Goodnight, Moon, both of which are actually really strange books, so I wanted to learn a little bit more about the author. Turns out she was pretty wild herself:
She was a lovely green-eyed blonde, extravagant and a little eccentric; with her first royalty check, she bought a street vendor’s entire cart full of flowers, and then threw a party at her Upper East Side apartment to show off her purchase. She was a prolific author, writing nearly a hundred picture books under several pen names and sometimes keeping six different publishers busy at once with her projects. She was known to produce a book just so she could buy a plane ticket to Europe.
She was also a real student of children and their responses to literature:
Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. What she found was that children in the earliest stage of linguistic development relish language with patterns of sound and fixed rhythms. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.
Goodnight, Moon, btw, was not an instant bestseller:
The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn’t sell as well as some of Brown’s other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book’s almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.
Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.
Aimee Bender recently wrote a piece on what writers can learn from Goodnight, Moon:
"Goodnight Moon" does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids - people - also love depth and surprise, and "Goodnight Moon" offers both.
Though she was so prolific, the story of her death at 42 is extremely sad: a nurse asked her how she was feeling post-surgery — to show her how good she felt, Brown kicked her leg up like a can-can dancer, dislodged a blood clot in her brain, and died.