Reaching far beyond Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown’s picture-book legacy encompasses a number of gems – some never before published – that HarperCollins Children’s Books’ Harper imprint is polishing up, with new art, for today’s young readers. The Explore the World of Margaret Wise Brown program launches in March with The Dead Bird, illustrated by Christian Robinson, who received a 2016 Caldecott Honor for illustrating Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. Next up, in September, will be Brown’s Christmas in the Barn, re-illustrated by Anna Dewdney of Llama Llama fame.
Written by the late author in 1938, The Dead Bird first appeared in picture-book format 20 years later, published by Addison-Wesley and illustrated by Remy Charlip. In the story, four children playing in a park discover a bird with no heartbeat. After burying the tiny creature, they sing a song in tribute and decorate its grave with flowers.
HarperCollins Children’s Books editorial director Nancy Inteli, who heads up Explore the World of Margaret Wise Brown, explained that she and her team are working “hand-in-hand” with Amy Gary and Ellen Geiger, who manage different parts of Brown’s estate, to choose titles for the line that have resonated with readers in the past, as well as some never-before published stories. (Publishers Parragon and Sterling have also worked with the estate in recent years to publish newly illustrated books using Brown’s texts.)
The process of selecting an illustrator for each book, said Inteli, involved reviewing “the work of some of the most recognized illustrators of our times, to decide who would best bring the story to life.” Lining up Robinson to create new art for The Dead Bird, she added, “was a dream come true, and we knew we wanted to launch the program with this book. Christian brings such innovation as a visual storyteller, with his intuitive sense of composition. He knows how to create the most interesting context that transcends the text and carries the story beyond the page. He brought his own experience to this classic story, making it all the more powerful and relevant to this generation of readers.”
New Challenges, Eagerly Faced
Though he hadn’t read Brown’s books as a child and wasn’t familiar with them as an adult, Robinson said he was immediately drawn to The Dead Bird after receiving the manuscript from his agent, Steven Malk of Writers House, and immediately signed on to the project. “I was able to read the story with fresh eyes, without being influenced by what I later learned was the author’s amazing reputation and history,” he recalled. “To me it was an incredible story, unlike anything I’d ever seen. There was something timeless and classic about it, but there was also such a boldness to the story, which tackles issues that might be seen as controversial.”
While researching Brown’s life and work (which included reading Leonard S. Marcus’s 1992 biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon), Robinson was taken aback by what he discovered. “When I learned that she was children’s literature royalty, it was overwhelming and intimidating,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe this project was handed to me!’ But I put her legacy out of my mind, and promised myself I’d simply do the best I could.”
Robinson found that creating the art for The Dead Bird presented additional challenges. He had never before illustrated a story by an author who is no longer living, or a story that had been previously illustrated by another artist. “I was fortunate to have a starting point, and Charlip’s original illustrations are amazingly beautiful,” he said. “But of course, I didn’t want to be too highly influenced by Charlip. I wanted to take the story in my own direction.”
Thanks to Brown’s writing, he found his artistic bearings relatively easily, Robinson reported, despite the sobering elements of the story. “She wrote so eloquently and so gently, and I was so inspired by her words, that things started lighting up in my head,” he noted. “But the challenging part was creating visuals that presented the story without being too harsh, and finding the right balance to make the art happy and bright without shying away from the subject. I knew this story held a lot of weight, and I had a strong feeling of responsibility to present it in a way that was mine, but still authentic.”
Future additions to Explore the World of Margaret Wise Brown include winter 2017’s North, South, East, West, a never-before published story illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, whose debut picture book, The Watermelon Seed, received the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2014. This will be followed by yet-to-be announced Brown stories illustrated by Loren Long (author-illustrator of the Otis series) and Jerry Pinkney (winner of the 2010 Caldecott for The Lion & the Mouse), scheduled for fall 2017 and winter 2018, respectively.
“It is so exciting to see these stellar illustrators’ unique interpretations of Brown’s words, and to see the incredible passion and enthusiasm they bring to the books,” said Inteli. “So far, they have far exceeded our expectations.”
And the editor observed that the timing of the new line is fortuitous, as HarperCollins gears up for a pair of 2017 milestones. “Next year we celebrate The Runaway Bunny’s 75th anniversary, as well as our company’s 200th anniversary,” said Inteli. “Harper has been publishing Margaret Wise Brown’s books since the 1940s, and they are such an essential part of our history, and of our identity on the children’s side. We’re thrilled to offer new readers the same excitement so many of us felt when we first discovered a Margaret Wise Brown story. She had a unique ability to convey a childhood experience and perspective on the world that no other author had done before. In doing so, she changed the landscape of children’s literature.”
Different Books, Different Houses
Brown’s timeless appeal is underscored by the hefty number of reissues and new collections in print from a host of other children’s publishers. A partial sampling includes:
Parragon Books’s list of almost two dozen Brown storybooks and anthologies, which in 2016 will add Bedtime Stories (June); The Tickly Spider, illustrated by Linda Bleck (July); and The Little Bunnies, illus. by Emma Levey (December). In recent years, Sterling has issued two anthologies of previously unpublished songs by Brown, discovered in a trunk in the author’s sister’s attic years after the author’s 1952 death: Goodnight Songs and Goodnight Songs: A Celebration of the Seasons, each illustrated by 12 familiar children’s book illustrators.
A robust roundup of Brown’s books is found on the lists of several Random House Children’s Books imprints, notably Golden Books and Little Golden Books. S&S’s Margaret K. McElderry’s backlist features Brown’s The Fathers Are Coming Home, illustrated by Stephen Savage; and Give Yourself to the Rain, with pictures by Teri L. Weidner. And the Dover Children’s Classics roster includes Brown’s The Noisy Book Treasury, with illustrations by Leonard Weisgard.
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. by Christian Robinson. Harper, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-06-028931-7