Margaret Wise Brown and the saga of Goodnight Moon

January 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Chances are, you have given a copy of Goodnight Moon to expectant parents to make sure it was in their child’s library when the time came for them to understand it. Or maybe somebody gave you a copy when you were young. If so, it would have been one of the more than 50 million copies of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classic that has been sold since its initial publication in 1947.

The book’s success was not foretold at its birth, however. In fact, quite the opposite. Anne Carroll Moore, the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, didn’t like the book— she actually hated it—and would not allow it in the library. The NYPL’s ban on the book lasted for a quarter of a century when, in 1972, the keepers of the shelves finally decided the book was okay.

Moore’s position at the NYPL placed her in a role of great influence as to what other libraries would offer to their patrons. Even though Moore was supposedly retired in 1947—she had been appointed to her position in 1906 and had championed many positive advances for libraries stocking children’s books and encouraging them to read—she still essentially ran things at the library.

If you have read the book or read it to a child, it’s not easy to find the reasons for the objection.

In an article in Slate magazine last year, Dan Kois dug into the mystery to find the reason for Moore’s antipathy:

Anne Carroll Moore was not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s work. Brown, with her Bank Street training, was “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands,” says (Betsy) Bird (a librarian who has written extensively about children’s literature). “She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them.”

Moore reviewed the book and dismissed it as “an unbearably sentimental piece of work.”

Moore may also have had some problems with Margaret Wise Brown herself (although there is no solid evidence for this). By 1947, Brown was a well-known and prolific children’s author.

She was born in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Hollins College in Virginia. She came to New York in 1932 to teach and to study art and became part of the Bank Street Experimental School, one of the locations for the city’s bohemian community. She began writing children’s books and managed to get her first publication in 1937 with When the Wind Blew. She tried to recruit famous authors to write children’s books, and while Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck turned her down, Gertrude Stein did not. Stein’s book, The World is Round, was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who would eventually work with Brown on The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon.

Brown had numerous romantic flings and had a long-running and tempestuous affair with Blanche Oelrichs, a poet, playwright, and actress who had been the wife of actor John Barrymore. Oelrichs died in 1950, and Brown became engaged to a Rockefeller heir in 1952. Before they were married, she went on a book tour and was hospitalized in Nice, France, where she died of an embolism. She was 42 years old, and she did not live to see Goodnight Moon become a children’s classic.

By the time of her death, she had published more than 100 books, and she left behind more than 70 unpublished manuscripts. Her sister tried unsuccessfully to sell them and then stored them in a cedar chest where they lay forgotten for nearly 40 years. Many of them have since been published.

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