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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"Cat Life" and Children's Books

I recently finished reading Awakened By The Moon, Leonard Marcus' biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and it was fascinating to learn about the early days of the children's book publishing industry. Since BJ was quite little, we've read Goodnight Moon every night before bed, but I had no idea that the author was such an icon in the field of children's literature.

In fact, I confess that before becoming a parent I hadn't really thought much at all about the history behind the books written for children, nor about their authors. At first I felt a little guilty about this (not a surprising reaction, I suppose, for someone who was an English and Women's Studies major). That guilt was assuaged a bit when I read what Marcus had to say about Brown's own recollections: "Of her own childhood memories of books, Margaret once remarked that it had not then occurred to her that books were written by people; what mattered was whether or not they rang true" (2). I could absolutely relate.

The biography was full of compelling tidbits. I hadn't imagined Brown as someone who never had children of her own. Nor would I have guessed that she had a complicated love life, being involved in a tumultuous dramatic relationship with the (female) poet Michael Strange, and late in life falling in love with a much younger man -- and a Rockefeller to boot. How wonderful that such a complex and intelligent woman wrote these stories that we have come to love, these books that play such a central role in the ritual of our lives.

I was also gratified to discover that the modernists (such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein) had such influence on Brown, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and their compatriots at the Bank Street Writers Laboratory -- though it makes a lot of sense. As Marcus puts it, "The modernist aesthetic of recreating in art the immediacy of sensory impressions seemed to coincide with young children's natural reliance on their senses as the primary means of both experiencing and expressing themselves about the world" (86). I'd had no idea that Stein herself wrote books for children, nor that Brown had been involved in their publication.

For some time now, the ex-English major in me has been ruminating on a comparative analysis of The Runaway Bunny and Guess How Much I Love You. It was neat to learn that Brown's inspiration for The Runaway Bunny was a medieval Provencal love ballad, quoted by Marcus thus:

If you pursue me I shall become a fish in the water
And I shall escape you
If you become a fish I shall become an eel

If you become an eel I shall become a fox
And I shall escape you
If you become a fox I shall become a hunter
And I shall hunt you... (149)

Almost enough to get me thinking about graduate school again, imagining the paper I could pull out of all of this.


I was also delighted to read that Brown once answered a publisher's questionnaire about hobbies with the following quote:

"Cat Life -- which means doing nothing and just watching." (146)

Once upon a time, I could have counted "Cat Life" as one of my favorite hobbies. It's largely why I found satisfaction in being an artist's model, and I think a little "Cat Life" is part of every writer's existence. I keep reminding myself that, someday, I will again have time to pursue such a hobby.

1 comment:

Miriam said...

Awwwww! I loved reading your blog. Great to hear your voice in writing again, my dear!

Thanks also for the scrumptious dinner. Looking forward to seeing you and my favorite UGK's soon.


Miri (Tía Miwi)