March 17, 2018

The Life & Times of Goodnight Moon

On this day in 1910, Margaret Wise Brown was born. Included in the over one hundred children's books she published -- even more came out after her early death -- are The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947). Brown's writing philosophy developed through her association with Lucy Sprague Mitchell's "here-and-now" approach to children's literature. One of Mitchell's monographs on the world inhabited by Mollie, a typical two-year-old at her experimental school, might be seen as a recipe for simply-told, everyday stories like Goodnight Moon:
    Sometimes Mollie's remarks are repeated over and over until they trail off into a rhythmic chant.... The stories that Mollie seems to enjoy (presumably because she understands them) are about Mollie and Mollie's emotional waverings between dependence and independence, her adventures with her own bed, her own dinner, her own blocks, her own places to sit, her own kitty....
As described by her biographer, Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, 1992) Brown was charismatic and childlike in spirit, with a lifestyle opposite to the tranquil comforts upon which her most famous book is based. Guests to her summer house in Maine would find bottles of champagne at intervals along their walking routes, and local lobstermen would be paid to keep her traps full. She had Ingrid Bergman good looks, no husband or children, and an adventurous approach to relationships: dates with the Prince of Spain, a ten-year turmoil with Michael Strange (the poet-actress Blanche Oelrichs), and a planned marriage to James Stillman Rockefeller Jr., sixteen years younger. The marriage remained theoretical: while on her way to meet Rockefeller for a round-the-world sail she was hospitalized for routine surgery in France; in high spirits over her imminent release from hospital, she kicked her leg above her head can-can style and died within moments from an embolism.

Neither the singular life nor the bizarre death seems preparation enough for the next, posthumous chapter in the story of Goodnight Moon. Brown's will left the vast majority of her royalties to nine-year-old Albert Clarke, the middle son of a friend. Brown's books had done well in her lifetime, or well enough to keep her in the extravagant and erratic style she liked, but they had not made her rich; they made Albert very rich, or would have. As Joshua Prager says in a feature story on Mr. Clarke for The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 8, 2000), at an early stage "the trajectories of Ms. Brown's book and the boy who inherited it began to diverge with strange symmetry." As Albert's annual royalties from Goodnight Moon gradually rose from several hundred dollars in the early '50s to half-a-million in 1999, so Albert's tally of arrests, wives, squanderings and oddball behavior have kept pace. Not a happy or normal bunny, and the dark inverse of all that is suggested by the sunny eccentricities of Brown, or by her "great green room." Clarke is so far from hanging up socks and mittens that he throws away his clothes when they get dirty; his much-broken nose and most of his jail-time are because he does not react well to people whispering any sort of 'hush.'

The heir of Goodnight Moon says that he is not really much of a fan of the book. For the 50th anniversary of its publication, HarperCollins collected testimonials from those who are; among them is the following:
    I have read Goodnight Moon to my two sons since the oldest was born in 1980. When I was 42, I found out that I was going to have a daughter. Goodnight Moon was Georgia's first and her favorite book. She kissed the kittens and waved to the moon. She begged all of us to read it to her, but it was our 10-year-old son, Walker, who was most often found sitting with her reading "moon." Georgia died in 1994 in an accident on her second birthday. 500 people crowded into the church to comfort us and to comfort each other. Walker, who has learning disabilities and has had a hard time learning to read, got up to read Goodnight Moon. He was visibly nervous, but several pages in, he forgot all about the people crowded into the church and he read unhesitatingly from the heart. A friend sitting beside the children's librarian from our public library, noticed her lips moving as she silently recited the words of this beloved book along with him. Later, we realized that she wasn't the only one. . . .

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