PERHAPS ONE has to have grown up with Margaret Wise Brown's picture books to truly appreciate her art. Early on my father read to me The Wind in the Willows, A Christmas Carol, and The Yellow Knight of Oz rather than Little Fur Family, The Runaway Bunny, and The Golden Egg Book; so I learned to regard any Margret Wise Brown title as just another "baby book." However, countless little children have adored Goodnight Moon, many obstinately refusing to go to sleep until after the reassuring refrain, "Goodnight room/Goodnignt moon/Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. . . ." Children's book authors, artists, child psychologists and college professors also have confessed their love for her books.
From 1937 until 1952, when she died at 42 from a routine appendectomy, Margaret Wise Brown wrote, translated, "edited" or "ghosted" over 100 books for boys and girls. She began writing while a member of the writer's laboratory at what is now the Bank Street School, and it was here that she met the publisher William R. Scott, who soon hired her to head his newly formed children's book department. From the start, Brown was an experimental author and editor. An admirer of contemporary Russian and French picture books, she developed techniques of composition similar to those introduced by Kornei Chukovsky, Samuil Marshak and other early Soviet wirters for children. She also succeeded in getting Gertrude Stein to write the unconventional The World Is Round.
What Brown thought the trade needed most were books for the very young. She believed that they should be told about familiar sights, sounds and smells, and that fairy tales, myths and legends should be postponed until the children were older. Her own short, simple, plotless texts are generally not stories. She called her form the "interlude": "somewhere between a story and a poem, a dwelling on some theme in words, a recreation of some experience." By introducing mood, sentiment and anecdote into the American picture book, Brown inspired the "conceptual" school, which includes Charlotte Zolotow, Ruth Kraus, Beatrice Schenck De Regniers and Alvin Tresselt, many of whom, like Brown, have also been editors. These authors tend to treat literature as therapy, trying to meet some specific emotional need of the child.
Like the Children's Television Workshop, Brown experimented in her own "literature lab." She tested each element of the text and art of a picture book on groups of two-to-four year olds; only that which met the full aproval of these small judges went into the published version. Consequently, as her publishers advertised, each title was "custom-made for its eventual users." Such a method of composition does seem a bit calculated; however, Brown had a redeeming wit and love of words, elements generally lacking in the work of the majority of her successors.
Perhaps Brown's greatest gift as a writer was her rare ability to involve the child in the storytelling. "The child grasps the 'plot' in the first few pages," a publisher's blurb typically described one of her books, "so that he can 'read' the story through the pictures. This makes it uniquely his own -- a book that no one has to help him read." Brown believed that the picture book should have the power to "jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar." What has expecially endeared her work to parent and child alike has been her quality of reassurance. Most of her picture books conclude with a bedtime scene -- the hero or heroine, like the listening child soon to be lost in dreams.
Not everyone was impressed with either Brown's ability or her prolificness. Anne Carroll Moore of the Chilren's Room of the New York Public Library pooh-poohed her eary books; The Horn Book did not review them. Brown was not the typical children's book writer, and she did have her contradictions. Although she made her living by writing about kitties and puppies, her favorite sport was "beagling," a vicious pastime in which a pack of beagles are sent out after an Oklahoma jack rabbit. "Well," she once admitted, "I don't especially like children either. At least not as a group. I won't let anybody get away with anything just because he is small."
In the last few years, several newly illustrated editions of Brown's work have been issued. Evaline Ness contributed some birghtly colored woodcuts to Steamroller (Walker, $5.95. Ages 4-8), a weak tale about a girl who gets a steamroller rather than a doll for Christmas, and Geoffrey Hayes provided the charming pictures for When the Wind Blew (Harper & Row, $3.95. Ages 4-8), a Chekhovian story about a forgotten old woman who keeps house with 17 cats and one blue-gray kitten. But perhaps the loveliest of these recent editions is Fox Eyes (Pantheon, $5.95. Ages 4-8), with a stunning suite of sensitive animal studies by Garth Williams, who illustrated so many of Brown's "Golden Books." Just out is a reissue of Sneakers: Seven Stories About A Cat (Addison-Wesley, $6.95. Ages 4-8). The original 1955 Jean Charlot drawings have been retained in this new edition; but, although he did a splendid job with Brown's Two Little Trains (Addison-Wesley, $4.95. Ages 4-8), Charlot's formal, Mayan manner was never appropriate for these sketches set in the contemporary United States. However, Charlot's strong line does complement the terse prose, and the bold typeface in Sneakers anticipated the famous "I-Can-Read" books by a couple years. Unfortunately, not much happens in Sneakers and likely most children will turn on the television before they've read through these slight tales.