Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Margaret Wise Brown

If you read my Mentor Monday post this week, you know I've been working on a biography of Margaret Wise Brown for Apprentice Shop Books. I jumped at the chance to write about this person whose words I've been reading to preschoolers for the last 31 years.

I'd bought Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard S. Marcus a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. This was the perfect excuse to pull it off the shelf. Brown was born the second of three children in 1910. Her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Gratz Brown, had been a Progressive leader during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. A vocal opponent of slavery, he was elected both a governor of Missouri, as well as a United States Senator. In 1872, he was New Hampshire's own Horace Greeley's vice-presidential running mate on the Greeley/Brown ticket.

Margaret's father, Robert, was the youngest of 9 children, and never really knew the "glory days" of the Brown family. Benjamin died when Robert was 9-years old. By that point, the family had fallen on hard times. Benjamin had neglected his law practice and personal finances to pursue public service. Robert was the first Brown man NOT to attend Princeton or Yale. Through family connections and hard work, Robert was well-employed and provided nicely for his family.

Margaret proved to be a storyteller from an early age. Before little sister Roberta was able to read to herself, she'd ask Margaret, two years her senior, to read her stories. Whatever she read, she'd twist it up in some way to suit her own tastes. If the story featured three children, she'd make the middle child the heroine. If it was scary, she'd make it even scarier. I checked out some of the fairy tales she would have read. They were positively gruesome as written. Here's what "Little Red Riding-Hood" (from The Blue Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang) sounded like in 1905 before Margaret went all Wes Craven on it.

"The wolf, seeing her come in, said to her, hiding himself under the bedclothes:

'Put the custard and the little pot of butter upon the stool and come and lie down with me.'

Little Red Riding-Hood undressed herself and went into bed, where being greatly amazed to see how her grandmother looked in her night-clothes, she said to her:

'Grandmamma, what great arms you have got!'

'That is the better to hug thee, my dear.'

'Grandmamma, what great legs you have got!'

'That is to run the better, my child.'

'Grandmamma, what great ears you have got!'

'That is to hear the better, my child.'

'Grandmamma, what great eyes you have got!'

'It is to see the better, my child.'

'Grandmamma, what great teeth you have got.'

'That is to eat thee up.'

And saying these words this wicked wolf fell upon Little Riding-Hood and ate her all up."

That's it. End of story. There was no wood-cutter coming to save LRRH. I can't imagine how little Margaret made this even scarier to Roberta.

Margaret's childhood wasn't all fairy tales. She loved animals, especially dogs and rabbits. She didn't appear to be terribly sentimental about them, however. When one of her pet rabbits died, she skinned it herself, and announced she was going to be a "lady butcher" when she grew up.

She took up beagling as an adult. It's like fox hunting, except you are chasing after rabbits. And by you, I mean "you." You and your dog chase after and hunt down bunnies. Margaret collected a pile of rabbit feet and kept them as trophies from the hunt.

Robert was reluctant to send Margaret to college. He figured she'd just get married and not put the education to any use. Margaret's mother insisted Margaret go to college, and she did. Margaret never did get married, although she was engaged to a Rockefeller 14 or 15-years her junior (I believe they'd call her a "Cougar" today) at the time of her death in 1952.

As a child, Margaret and Roberta set fire to a neighborhood woodlot. When questioned about it, they denied any involvement. As an adult, Margaret set the world of writing for children on fire. There's no denying that.

(Sorry. I gotta do this.)


Diane Mayr said...

Andy, this sounds like your kind of gal! I like her spunk, but not the bunny foot trophies!

How did you know I have a thing for Hank Williams? Remind me sometime to sing "Window Shopping" for you.

I'm off now to shovel out the car so I can get to work...

Andy said...

I love Hank! I bet he did his share of rabbit hunting down in Alabama.