Anyone who has read Goodnight Moon once has probably read it 1,000 times. Still, it retains the power to surprise us—with its offbeat tempo, its imperfect rhymes, and that strange and haunting, “Goodnight, nobody.” It’s no exaggeration to say that Margaret Wise Brown transformed children’s literature. Goodnight Moon is probably her most famous work, but she wrote a number of books that remain beloved classics, such as The Runaway Bunny, Little Fur Family, and Mister Dog.
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby, has 42 pages, one page for each year of her fascinating life. The fact that the narrator states this plainly at the very beginning of the story demonstrates the extent to which, in telling young readers about this important author, Barnett pays homage to Brown’s philosophy and style. This task was, as he explains via email, not an easy one. “Early on I got it into my head that I wanted to write a book that Margaret Wise Brown would have liked, and so I spent at least the first six months of work in a self-induced flop sweat, because I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t have liked picture-book biographies generally.” Luckily, Barnett got past this anxiety to produce words that echo Brown’s ability to capture “the joyful rhythms of childhood as well as what Lewis Carroll called ‘the graver cadences of Life.’”
Like his subject, Barnett believes in speaking honestly with children. He is candid not only about the tragic brevity of Brown’s life, but also the censorship she faced during her career and her bisexuality. “Margaret Wise Brown was in love with a woman and a man. That this biographical fact might strike some adults as ‘inappropriate for children’ is part of a strain of prejudice that has led many queer kids’ book authors to hide their sexualities, partly or entirely, for fear of damaging their careers,” Barnett says. “There’s a long history of sham paternalism in children’s books—adult gatekeepers dressing up their own bigotries, biases, and tastes in concocted notions of ‘kid-friendliness’ that have nothing to do with actual kids.” Barnett adds that when he talks to young readers at schools and bookstores, one of the questions they often ask is, “Are you in love?” So, it felt important for him to answer the question, “Did Margaret Wise Brown fall in love?”
Like Barnett, illustrator Sarah Jacoby had to find her own way into a celebrated legacy. After trying to use the restricted color scheme Clement Hurd created for Goodnight Moon, she ultimately decided on something closer to her own style.
Nevertheless, a great deal of thought went into how to complement Barnett’s seemingly simple but incredibly sophisticated text. “In the end,” Jacoby offers, “it came down to simple stuff. There would have to be images of Margaret and her life in there somewhere, right? I let that be the one rule of the book: If the text was discussing a story about Margaret, I would try and draw it. But then I had to consider: Who might be telling this history? Where would it manifest? Would it just be a voice talking to air?”
Jacoby did decide to retain one visual element familiar to Brown’s fans. In a storybook that is, in part, a story about books, Jacoby let rabbits stand in for the uncountable number of adults who have read Brown’s work aloud and the youngsters who have formed their audience. And to them, Jacoby says, “Thanks, bunnies!”
Jessica Jernigan is a writer and editor living in Michigan. She was a 2018 Kirkus Prize judge. The photo of Mac Barnett above is by Sonya Sones.