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Beyond "Goodnight, Moon"

          If you find yourself in New York City this weekend, stop by the 42nd Street Library at 2:00 on Sunday, May 23rd.  The New York Public Library is hosting a Margaret Wise Brown Birthday Sing-in on the steps in honor of the late author’s 100th birthday.  Cupcakes are promised, and all are welcome.

          Most parents who’ve raised children in the last fifty years are familiar with Brown’s most enduring work, “Goodnight, Moon.”  Written in hypnotic rhyme and illustrated in warm reds and greens by Clement Hurd, the book did not make a splash on first publication in 1947, selling a respectable but modest 6,000 copies that fall.  But the book gradually found an audience, and by now total sales reportedly top 11 million copies.

           In addition to this classic, Brown wrote many more picture books, stories and poems that are worth seeking out.

          “Where Have You Been?” begins, “Little Old Cat, Little Old Cat, where have you been?  To see this and that, said the Little Old Cat, that’s where I’ve been.” In succeeding verses the owl narrator asks about the whereabouts of bees, bunnies, birds and whales, in short verses with the appeal of nursery rhymes.  The repetition and the parade of animals make this a good choice for toddlers, while beginning readers will start predicting the rhymes as the book progresses, an important pre-reading skill.  My childhood edition was illustrated with delicate black and white drawings by Barbara Cooney, but the book was reissued several years ago with full-color art by Caldecott Medal-winning artists Leo and Diane Dillon. 

          “The Sailor Dog,” illustrated in an oversized edition by Garth Williams, tells how Scuppers the dog sails the oceans, survives a shipwreck and visits exotic ports.  Garth William’s full-color illustrations detail every wave, palm tree and plank of his ship.  At the end of the book, he’s back on the water again: "And here he is where he wants to be, a sailor sailing the deep green sea."  The original book is perfect for chanting and singing at storytimes, but even the truncated Golden Books edition will appeal to preschoolers.

          “The Important Book” reflects Brown’s embrace of the Bank Street philosophy she learned in writing classes there in the 1930s.  Each object – a spoon, a daisy, the sky, an apple – is pictured in varying styles by Leonard Weisgard, while the matter-of-fact yet poetic text describes each one.  “The important thing about rain is that it is wet.  It falls out of the sky, and it sounds like rain…and is the color of air.  But the important thing about rain is that it is wet.”  Young children who are just beginning their own exploration of the physical world will be enchanted. 

          The author of these timeless books was far from the gentle soul readers might imagine.  Born into a well-to-do family in Brooklyn, Brown was described by friends as mercurial, generous, and charming but often exasperating.  She knew everyone worth knowing in the vibrant children’s book world of the 1930s and 1940s, from fellow authors to illustrators, librarians, and publishers.  She was engaged to be married when she died at 42 from complications after surgery.

          Adults interested in her life will enjoy Leonard Marcus’s fascinating biography, “Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon,” which evokes the personalities and social milieu of the golden age of picture books.

This article was originally published in the Free Lance-Star on May 18.