Thirteen years. The project I began in 2003 has had that many birthdays. It occupies two large crates in my office. It has dominated my life, involving travel, research, reading. It has spawned four versions, each dragging multiple drafts. Rejections span ten years.
Nobody, it seems, wants this book. “Kids won’t be interested.” The subject, Margaret Wise Brown, would find this funny. I am not amused, especially since it was Margaret herself who demanded (she’s not the asking type) that I tell her story.
The journey began in 1992 when I read Leonard Marcus’ biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon. I re-read that book every night for eight years. Clearly something was awakening in me: a fascination with Margaret’s story and the desire to write for the very young. In 2003, I gave in to Margaret’s insistence and started researching.
Tangled up in Margaret’s story is my own, both writers for children, though our backgrounds are vastly different. No matter what genre I work in — picture books, middle grade, nonfiction — I always draw upon my own life. But because my youngest years were traumatic, I never could reach my three-year-old self. Writing for the very young eluded me. Margaret made it look so easy. She wrote Goodnight Moon in bed one morning and literally phoned it in to her editor.
Earlier this year, I was asked to speak and give a workshop on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, where Margaret had owned a summer house, in August. I accepted, but decided my Margaret book would stay in the crates. I would not resurrect a failed project.
Days before my flight, Margaret beckoned once more. A whole week on Vinalhaven! A rare chance to see Only House! How could I pass up that opportunity? I dug out the crates and pored over my notes and drafts, letting Margaret fill my soul again.
On the ferry to the Island, I prayed for a new way into my story. Would I be able to borrow some of Margaret’s magic from her special place?
I visited Only House. I sat on Margaret’s dock. I gazed at the little pine-topped island she made famous in The Little Island and waited for lightning to strike.
At Only House, Margaret lived a “cat life,” just being. I only had a week, not enough time to “be.” But I fell in love with Vinalhaven, just as she had. Waking to the country’s first sunrises. Ospreys gliding over the rental house I stayed in. Butterflies working tansy and thistle. Lobster boats dotting the bay. Once, the call of a late-night loon.
During Margaret’s first summer there, she wrote to a friend, “Life goes on in Transition. This summer it is better than it has been in a long time, and still [things hang] in the balance.”
One night, I watched a full moon climb over the cove. I turned off the bedroom lamp and noticed glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. My effort to tell Margaret’s story one more time was faltering. She had been inspired by the real moon. I only had pasted-on stars that shined from borrowed light as my guide.
The next day, I stood at Margaret’s grave site up the hill from Only House. She had died suddenly at the age of 42 and her fiancé had scattered her ashes at the place she loved best. The granite marker is inscribed with a quote from The Little Island.
Life is always in transition. Any moment balance can be tipped. Margaret may have found magic here, but she still did the work in the short time allotted to her.
And so will I.