My Journey with Margaret Wise Brown

Only MargaretHow long does it take to write and have a non­fic­tion pic­ture book pub­lished? A few years? Five? How about nine­teen? From the spark of an idea to the hard­cov­er book in my hands, Only Mar­garet: A Sto­ry About Mar­garet Wise Brown, was indeed a jour­ney. It began with a book.

In 1998, I bought the adult biog­ra­phy Mar­garet Wise Brown: Awak­ened by the Moon by Leonard Mar­cus. I kept the book on my night­stand and read from it every night for the next eight years. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by this woman who became a pio­neer in the new field of mod­ern pic­ture books.

I did not come to Margaret’s books as a child. I nev­er fell asleep dream­ing of the great green room in Good­night Moon. The only Brown book I owned was a Gold­en Book, Home for a Bun­ny, pub­lished in 1956. I was five and had just moved to the coun­try after my moth­er had remar­ried. The coun­try scared me. I was afraid of the trees loom­ing over our house like gob­lins, afraid of the dead baby snakes my sis­ter and I found hatched on the porch.

Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon
Goodnight Moon
Home for a Bunny

On the cov­er of Home for a Bun­ny, the brown bun­ny with one paw upraised anx­ious­ly seems to be say­ing, What am I going to do? This wor­ry had often crossed my mind dur­ing the uncer­tain years when we were essen­tial­ly homeless.

In the sto­ry, the bun­ny vis­its the robins in their nest, the frog in his bog, the ground­hog in his log — all unsuit­able homes for a rab­bit. I won­dered if my new home was right for me. The last page shows two bun­nies in their den, the brown bun­ny and his new friend lying side by side like slip­pers. This was how home was sup­posed to be. No one afraid. Mar­garet knew how to write a sto­ry that would make young chil­dren feel safe.

Years lat­er, as a writer of children’s books myself, I began study­ing her books — 100 pub­lished at the time of her death in 1952. Her life in 30s and 40s New York seemed charmed, yet despite her pro­duc­tiv­i­ty she was prone to depres­sion. One night in 2002 as I closed Awak­ened by the Moon yet again, I heard a woman’s voice in my ear: Tell my sto­ry. I knew it was Mar­garet. I can’t, I said. But she insist­ed. Mar­garet was always very persuasive.

I began research­ing. Dig­ging through her papers at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty, I found a receipt from Vinal­haven Gen­er­al Store dat­ed July 10, 1952. Mar­garet had a sum­mer cot­tage on Vinal­haven Island off the coast of Maine. She pur­chased home­ly items: tea tow­els, sewing nee­dles. I held the receipt in a shak­ing hand. That was the day I was born. I knew she would leave this earth in Novem­ber of that year at the age of 42.

Margaret Wise Brown's Vinalhaven Cottage
Mar­garet Wise Brown’s Vinal­haven Cottage

By 2005, I had enough mate­r­i­al to write my pic­ture book biog­ra­phy. I tried telling Margaret’s sto­ry from her point of view, from her dog’s point of view, from the point of view of the hous­es she lived in. Every­thing but her house­plant! In des­per­a­tion, I shut myself in my office one week­end with a large bag of M&Ms and my notes. When I emerged, I was green from too much can­dy, but I had a ragged draft. I revised it many times. 

My sto­ry made the rounds, was reject­ed, yet I con­tin­ued research­ing and revis­ing. At times I want­ed to give up, but Mar­garet wouldn’t let me. More impor­tant, every time I returned to the research and the sto­ry, I was sucked back in. I trav­eled to the Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art for an exhib­it of Margaret’s illus­tra­tors. Garth Williams’ orig­i­nal cov­er of Home for a Bun­ny looked as if it had been paint­ed yes­ter­day. How could I quit now?

Years passed. Five. Ten. Still I researched, revised, sub­mit­ted. Along the way I was asked sev­er­al times to give talks about Mar­garet. It was no secret I was work­ing on her biog­ra­phy. In 2016, I was invit­ed to a week-long Mar­garet Wise Brown fes­ti­val on Vinal­haven Island to speak and con­duct work­shops. By then, I had final­ly packed the sto­ry away.

Tour­ing Margaret’s house, I under­stood the eccen­tric woman bet­ter. I real­ized how the spell of Maine ignit­ed her wild spir­it. One evening at a gath­er­ing, I heard an elder­ly man who’d known her as a boy tell an anec­dote. I turned away with a smile and thought, “Only Margaret!”

In a flash, I had a new focus for my pic­ture book. I revised it once more, sat­is­fied I’d told a true sto­ry, not just in the fac­tu­al sense, but one that reflect­ed Margaret’s flam­boy­ance, her lyri­cal writ­ing style, and her impor­tance to the field of children’s lit­er­a­ture. In 2017, Only Mar­garet was acquired by Eerd­mans Books for Young Read­ers. On Octo­ber 12, 2021, nine­teen years after Mar­garet first whis­pered in my ear, my book, illus­trat­ed by Nan Law­son, came out.

At what point do you give up on a book project? For me, my pas­sion for Margaret’s life and her work nev­er dimmed in the fif­teen years I worked on her story.

Mar­garet is qui­et now, but at night when I close my eyes, I still see the young blonde woman strid­ing the streets of New York, trail­ing fur coats and her snap­pish Ker­ry Blue ter­ri­er, new ideas spark­ing from her fin­ger­tips. Our long jour­ney is over. I’m grate­ful for every step.

Only Margaret

Only Mar­garet: A Sto­ry About Mar­garet Wise Brown
writ­ten by Can­dice Ran­som, illus­trat­ed by Nan Law­son
ISBN: 978−0−8028−5508−4
56 pages, ages 5 – 9

From smug­gling rab­bits onto trains, to scrib­bling sto­ries about island whis­pers, Mar­garet Wise Brown embraced adven­ture I life and on the page. This whim­si­cal­ly illus­trat­ed biog­ra­phy shares how an inde­pen­dent, fun-lov­ing woman became a trail­blaz­ing pio­neer of pic­ture books.”

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Connie Van Hoven
2 years ago

Con­grat­u­la­tions on this stun­ning book well worth wait­ing for! I’m sure Mar­garet is smiling.