Skip to main content

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown

Review

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown

“In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon…” So begins Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, GOODNIGHT MOON, which has enchanted readers and lulled little ones to sleep for almost 70 years. Parents, librarians and child care workers have loved her books and read them aloud over and over without knowing much (or anything) about the writer or the imagination behind them. Finally, through Amy Gary’s fascinating biography, IN THE GREAT GREEN ROOM, readers can meet the woman who created these stories, and learn of her remarkable and quite unusual life.

Margaret had an apparently inexhaustible imagination. Everywhere she went, she saw something that sparked an idea for a poem, a story or a song. As a young girl, she spent much time outside in the forest near her home on Long Island or while visiting relatives in Kentucky. Born in 1910 in Brooklyn, to Bruce and Maude Brown (and elder brother Gratz), Margaret had an active life both outdoors and indoors. Bruce was a successful businessman who traveled the world, purchasing hemp and jute for the manufacturing company that employed him. Her education included boarding school in both Switzerland (along with her younger sister, Roberta) and Massachusetts, followed by a university education at Hollins College, her mother’s alma mater.

"Gary is an incredible wordsmith, and I don’t think there’s another writer who could’ve told the fascinating and rich story of this legendary author so perfectly and beautifully."

Despite the family’s well-off situation and Margaret’s financial support from her father, he still expected her to pursue a career and provide some sort of an income for herself. She desired above all else to become a writer. Her home life was in disarray, though. Her family started to unravel when her father worked overseas and her mother began to struggle with mental illness. Her parents’ marriage degenerated into acrimony, never-ending arguments, and eventual unofficial separation, when her father bought a yacht and anchored it off the coastline where the family home was located.

College provided a respite, however. Margaret’s professors at Hollins recognized her untapped writing talent and gave her assignments that honed her skills. As she and her classmates neared completion of their own formal educations, many of them became engaged, as did Margaret. Yet she realized that if she were the wife of a cattle rancher, her dreams of writing would likely never be realized, and she broke off her own engagement. And indeed, her life events seemed to build one upon the other in ways that launched her not only into the successful writing and publication of children’s books, but also into editing, promotion and contract negotiation. And her book ideas kept coming and coming. She partnered with various talented artists and illustrators who brought her words to life with incredible images, like Clement Hurd and Leonard Weisgard.

While her professional life garnered success, Margaret’s personal life and relationships were turbulent and taxing. The two great early loves of her life (a man, Bill Gaston, and a woman, Michael Strange, the former wife of actor John Barrymore) were unfaithful or emotionally abusive to her. Indeed, her personal life resembled that of a Hollywood starlet rather than of a well-respected author of gentle and innocent children’s books. Both those relationships eventually failed, although one more great love was waiting in her future, as well as unexpected tragedy. Yet up until the very end of her life, Margaret was blazing trails in children’s fiction, and her beautiful books are beloved by both adults and kids to this day.

Amy Gary was granted access to an enormous collection of Margaret Wise Brown’s personal papers, as well as a trunkful of unpublished stories, songs and poems, by Roberta. These enabled Gary to tell the incredible story of the author’s life kindly, intimately and fully. Although I read numerous books of Margaret’s to my own child over the years, I never could have imagined the life she lived --- brilliant, turbulent, passionate --- from the words I saw on the page. Gary is an incredible wordsmith, and I don’t think there’s another writer who could’ve told the fascinating and rich story of this legendary author so perfectly and beautifully.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on January 13, 2017

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown
by Amy Gary

  • Publication Date: January 10, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250065364
  • ISBN-13: 9781250065360