Who else instantly heard the lulling rhythm of “in the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon…” in your head as soon as you saw this book cover? Both of my boys went through a lengthy Goodnight Moon phase, but I never really knew anything about its author. After reading In the Great Green Room, I now know more about Margaret Wise Brown than I ever really wanted to know — yet, paradoxically, less than I’d have liked to know. In the Great Green Room was an interesting read, but in the immortal words of high school principals everywhere: It failed to work up to its potential.
This is less a biography than a hagiography
In writing this biography, author Amy Gary drew on a treasure trove of journals and other unpublished works she unearthed in Margaret’s sister Roberta’s attic. She chose, however, to compose the work almost completely uncritically in third person omniscient (Margaret thought, Margaret felt, Margaret knew, Margaret did), rather than to incorporate much in the way of direct quotes or broader insights. Chapters begin with poem fragments, but excerpts of the journals Gary worked from would have been much more illuminating.
The result: A somewhat uneven biography that’s nonetheless fascinating; but which could have been so much more. For instance, Margaret finds herself unable to form healthy adult relationships and carries on lengthy, simultaneous affairs with both a married man and with “Michael” Strange, the former wife of John Barrymore (both of whom treat her fairly badly). Throughout her descriptions of these affairs, the author portrays Margaret as the injured party, barely acknowledging her own role in these unhealthy relationships other than with repeated references to her being damaged by childhood experiences with her own parents.
This contrast between Margaret Wise Brown’s personal life and her writing for children is fascinating, and worth exploring in more detail than we get here.
Other sections just leave the reader hanging
While the book is roughly chronological, it’s also somewhat choppy; a number of sections are just story fragments that never seem to reach their conclusions. For example, Gary recounts an occasion in the summer of 1939 (while the U.S. is contemplating whether to enter the war in Europe). Margaret learns that Phyra, a friend and illustrator she’d worked with on multiple books, is Jewish:
When Margaret learned that Phyra was Jewish, she confessed that she had to fight her prejudice after listening to those [anti-Semitic wartime] broadcasts. Her confession upset Phyra, who thought of Margaret as one of her closest friends. Margaret’s fumbling defense, that she simply didn’t know any Jews because there hadn’t been any at her schools or in her social circles, only cut Phyra more deeply…. Margaret knew that she would have to make amends, and she hoped Phyra would listen to her sincere apology.
Annnnd… boom: That’s the end of that, and we never hear if Margaret actually apologizes or remains friends. This is but one example; similar story fragments appear throughout the entire book. They’re interesting in and of themselves, but frustrating in their lack of further exploration.
Where’s the backstory?
Similarly frustrating: Gary’s choice to present the story of Margaret’s life in this step-by-step way without a lot of historical context also leaves the reader hanging in terms of backstory and motive. We learn, for instance, that the director of the New York Public Library refuses to purchase Goodnight Moon for the library’s collection, but get very little insight into why, or how this fit into larger arguments about the quality and appropriateness of children’s literature and of specific publishing houses at the time.
Additionally, we learn that Margaret always feels inadequate because she fails at writing “serious” literature for adults and that Michael often belittles her writing for children, but get no glimpses into (or excerpts of) the adult writing she keeps trying to publish. We learn that Margaret comes from a privileged background and hangs out with society’s elite, but there’s little acknowledgement of how her privilege (and financial support from her father) plays into her “bold” life choices. Gary tells us what happened in Margaret Wise Brown’s life, but little of the why or how.
This all sounds pretty critical, doesn’t it?
Make no mistake: I did thoroughly enjoy reading The Great Green Room — which is precisely why I’m frustrated with it. Margaret’s life and choices are fascinating, so my frustration lies in wanting more from this biography. So, what did I come away with?
- A renewed appreciation for how prolific Brown was! Aside from Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, she churned out at least 3-4 children’s books a year, some under various pseudonyms.
- An appreciation that the crazy bedroom in Goodnight Moon was based on reality. Margaret was rich, y’all: This room is partially based on her childhood (she loved a big old encyclopedia) and partially on her own adult bedroom.
- A chance to look at my own perceptions. If you’d asked me to picture the author of Goodnight Moon, I’d have imagined a kindly old grandma — not a woman who passed away precipitously at the age of 42.
- A broader view of Brown’s paradoxical life: Her affairs, her love of hunting, her wealthy and socially connected background, and her stated dislike of children (!) are not what you’d assume from her calm, soothing picture books.
Despite the above caveats, The Great Green Room is worth a read, but you might find yourself skimming at some points. 🙂
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