How 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.
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.
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: A Story About Margaret Wise Brown
written by Candice Ransom, illustrated by Nan Lawson
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.”