It’s common knowledge that Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, left a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts behind when she died of an embolism in 1952 at the age of 42. Less widely known is that her orphaned work included a cache of children’s songs, a genre that greatly interested the author in her final years. Brown devotees will discover a new facet of her talent when Sterling Children’s Books releases Goodnight Songs, a compilation of lullaby poems, in March.
Twelve children’s book illustrators contributed art to the book, which is packaged with a CD featuring the lyrics put to music and performed by Emily Gary and Tom Proutt. Comprising the roster of artists are Jonathan Bean, Carin Berger, Sophie Blackall, Linda Bleck, Renata Liwska, Christopher Silas Neal, Zachariah O’Hora, Eric Puybaret, Sean Qualls, Isabel Roxas, Melissa Sweet, and Dan Yaccarino.
The story of the songs’ discovery goes back almost a quarter century. Amy Gary, who in 1989 cofounded WaterMark, a small publishing company in Birmingham, Ala., and had previously been a library sales rep for Doubleday, followed the advice of some librarian friends. “They suggested that I consider reprinting some of Margaret Wise Brown’s out-of-print works, and I decided to contact the author’s sister, Roberta Rauch, about that possibility,” said Gary. In 1990, she visited Rauch’s Vermont home for what proved to be a propitious meeting.
“Sitting on the floor of Roberta’s house, looking through old copies of Margaret’s books, I followed a hunch, knowing how prolific she had been,” said Gary. “I asked Roberta if any of her sister’s unpublished manuscripts existed, even though I assumed that if they had, someone would have already found and published them.” Gary’s hunch was more accurate than her assumption. Rauch replied that there were indeed many of Brown’s manuscripts stowed in a trunk in her attic barn, a stash that included her undiscovered songs.
After six months, during which, Gary said, she was “on pins and needles,” Rauch finally retrieved the manuscripts from the trunk and shared them with Gary. The two worked out an agreement that Gary would develop and find a publisher for a picture book collection of Brown’s songs, but it was not a quick process. “Margaret sometimes used phrases from her previous publications in her songs,” explained Gary. “So researching the rights to her lyrics took many years.”
In 2011, Gary placed the book with Sterling, knowing, she said, “what a beautiful job” the publisher had done with its 2007 picture book version of Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton’s Puff the Magic Dragon, illustrated by Eric Puybaret, which is also packaged with a musical CD. “Roberta and I felt strongly that Sterling was the best match for Goodnight Songs,” said Gary.
The Collection Takes Shape
The Sterling’s editorial and art teams welcomed the challenge of transforming Brown’s decades-old manuscripts into a full-color picture book. Executive editor Meredith Mundy, who took over the project after acquiring editor Bill Luckey left the company last year, noted that she and Gary were determined to be true to Brown’s voice and intentions.
“We worked from what were really quite rough drafts, some of which were scribbled on the back of napkins or were fragments written on trains during Margaret’s travels,” Mundy explained. “It was so interesting to see how she used internal rhyme, and her rhythm is very beautiful and song-like. Amy was open to shaping and paring down some of the text as long as we could find notes from Margaret that indicated she would have backed up the changes we suggested. It was very important to us to be respectful of her writing tradition and her text.”
Art director Merideth Harte explained that Goodnight Songs was originally intended to have a single illustrator, until the idea of tapping a different artist to interpret each of the 12 songs surfaced. “Bill Luckey and I had talked about our vision of the book, and how we could make it as original as possible,” she recalled. “In the middle of one night, I found myself awake and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have 12 illustrators instead, since each song is so unique?’ So I set about coming up with a list of who we might want to contribute to the book.”
Harte found inspiration for her illustrator wish list in fall 2012, when she viewed The Original Art, a juried exhibit celebrating the art of children’s book illustration, held annually at Society of Illustrators exhibit space in Manhattan. “Most if not all of the illustrators involved in the Goodnight Songs project were recognized in this particular show,” she recalled. “Jonathan Bean was the only illustrator whom I was not familiar with, but I knew as soon as I saw his piece in the exhibit that he would be a perfect fit for the project. Once the list was compiled, it was presented to Amy Gary. Fortunately, she was thrilled with the proposed group of illustrators and the concept of using a variety of illustrators for the book.”
Harte then tackled the task of pairing each artist and poem. “I considered the subject matter of the song and the style of the illustrator’s work, and instinctually matched up artists and songs,” she said. “It all fell into place quite easily – the hardest part was organizing all the contracts. It didn’t seem necessary for me to art direct at all. I told them, ‘Here’s your piece, please work around the block of text, and go forth and create!’ ”
‘A Fanciful Celebration’
Three contributors to Goodnight Songs shared their experiences of both reading and illustrating Brown’s words.
The artwork of Isabel Roxas, illustrator of Alison McGhee’s The Case of the Missing Donut, is featured on the cover of Goodnight Songs:
“Margaret Wise Brown’s work to me is a fanciful celebration of the quiet and overlooked. One of my most favorites is from her Noisy series about a mysterious quiet noise: “Was it a little blue flower growing? Was it a bee wondering?” These are such wonderful, rich musings that are playful and poetic, silly but not frivolous. It’s a fine line, and I do try to my utmost to do the same with my pictures. That sort of attention to intimate moments resonates with me and I love making small, whispering scenes that invite a reader to come close, as if preparing to hear a secret."
“It’s a remarkable honor to be illustrating a poem by Margaret Wise Brown, and to be in the company of such highly accomplished illustrators is amazing. Dan Yaccarino, for example, was an illustrator I admired growing up, and his story inspired me to move to New York and become an illustrator. So it’s a pretty big deal to now be sharing a credits section with him.”
To create her artwork for the collection (shown below), Carin Berger, whose picture books include The Little Yellow Leaf and A Perfect Day, drew inspiration from Brown’s iconic bedtime book:
“I adored Goodnight Moon when I was little. I not only loved the story, but was entranced with Clement Hurd’s illustrations of the room itself. The images perfectly mirrored the words and had such presence – an evocative combination of warmth, quiet, and mystery. It was a thrill and honor to be asked to contribute an illustration to Goodnight Songs. I wanted the art to harken back to the room in Goodnight Moon, but instead of peeking in, this time I wanted to imagine peering out. I wanted to show rooms in all of the other houses in which goodnight stories were being read.”
Linda Bleck, whose artwork for Goodnight Songs is shown below and who in 2008 illustrated Brown’s previously unpublished The Moon Shines Down (Thomas Nelson) – a manuscript found in the same attic trunk – appreciated the opportunity to revisit the author’s writing:
“To work on a Margaret Wise Brown book is a privilege, and I was so honored to be asked to contribute to her work a second time. When I create visuals to complement her beautiful words, I feel like Margaret is watching over me. Her stories remind me to keep the youngest of readers engaged through simple words and pictures, as they are the best critics of children’s books.”
Roxas, Bleck, and Bergin will join fellow contributors Neal, Bean, Blackall, Yaccarino, O’Hora, and Qualls at the Goodnight Songs launch event and book signing at BookCourt in Brooklyn on March 15. Emily Gary and Tom Proutt will perform songs they recorded for the CD, and Amy Gary will give a presentation about the discovery of Brown’s song manuscripts.
Goodnight Songs by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. by various illustrators. Sterling, $17.95 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4549-0446-5