Big Red Barn

 

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Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown

1956

Illustrated by Felicia Bond

Big Red Barn is one of Margaret Wise Brown’s best. Nothing much happens. We meet the animals leading their daytime lives on a farm. Then dusk falls and the animals walk up the hill to the big red barn and go to sleep. Little happens, yet young children love this book because of the addictive language that was Brown’s particular genius. The lulling musicality, the cadenced repetitions, the off-kilter rhyming are hypnotic, calming, and achingly beautiful. The illustrations, created by Felicia Bond for the 1989 reissue do justice to the text. The bright reds and greens of the vibrant sunlit world metamorphose into the whispering shadows of night.

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Margaret Wise Brown began her writing career while a teacher-in-training at the Bank St. Experimental School in Greenwich Village. Her style was strongly influenced by the “here-and-now” philosophy espoused by Bank Street founder and early education revolutionary Lucy Sprague Mitchell, which proposed that young children would rather read stories about the real world of their own lives than fantasies and fairy tales. Brown’s short literary career (truncated by her untimely death) was characterized by a whirlwind of productivity: she had over 100 children’s stories in print during her lifetime and new books continue to be published posthumously, even half a century later.

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Strikingly beautiful, green-eyed and blond (one of her several pseudonyms, Timothy Hay, referred to her hair), Margaret Wise Brown led a colorful life. She divided her time between her island retreat in Maine (called The Only House) and a tiny house in Manhattan (called Cobble Court). The latter was a wooden farm cottage built in the early 1800’s that lay hidden behind row houses in the Upper East Side. Brownie, as she was known by her many friends, was never married and had no children. She had a prolonged affair with an older woman (Blanche Oelrichs, an actress, author, socialite, and ex-wife of John Barrymore), and was affianced at the time of her death to a younger man (James “Pebble” Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.). She lived with flare and style: with her first royalty check, she purchased all the flowers from a street vender’s cart and threw a party at her Greenwich Village apartment.

Aside: Cobble Court was slated for demolition in the1960’s. Fortunately, it was saved and can now be seen – diminutive, idiosyncratic, and charming – at the corner of Greenwich and Charles Streets in the West Village.

 

Goodnight Moon

 

 

 

goodnight moonGoodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

1947

Illustrated by Clement Hurd

The creative genius of Margaret Wise Brown is nowhere more apparent than in Goodnight Moon. This beloved book begins, “In the great green room/ There was a telephone/ And a red balloon/ And a picture of –/ The cow jumping over the moon”.  After listing the contents of the room, each item is tucked away for the night, “Goodnight room/ Goodnight moon/ Goodnight cow jumping over the moon”.  In the vibrant illustrations by Clement Hurd, we see a bunny rabbit in blue and white striped pajamas in his bed in the green room surrounded by the objects listed in the story.  The old lady appears knitting in the rocking chair and then disappears.  Two kittens play with a ball of yarn and curl up together.  The mittens and socks dry by the fire.  A mouse scampers across the floor and ends up on a windowsill staring at the moon.  The lights dim and the bunny falls asleep.

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A spare 130 words, the book is a marvel of writerly restraint.  It contains considerable rhyming (“And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush/ And a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’”), but Brown was no slave to poetic meter.  The result is a work of considerable sophistication with just enough dissonance and asymmetry to lend contrast to the soothing nursery rhyme cadences.

Margaret Wise Brown died at the age of 42.  While on a visit to France in 1952, she had a pulmonary embolus while recovering from surgery for an ovarian cyst.  In the settlement of her estate, the future royalties of Goodnight Moon were projected to be $500.  The beneficiary of these royalties was an 8 year old boy who lived in her neighborhood.  In fact, this book became one of the all time bestsellers of children’s literature.  It is a book that can be read hundreds of times as a bedtime ritual and never lose its freshness.

Aside:  On the wall of the green room is a framed painting which depicts a fishing rabbit.  This is an illustration from The Runaway Bunny, another book written by Brown and illustrated by Hurd.