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‘The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown’ A Q&A with Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby

There’s a new book out about children’s literature legend Margaret Wise Brown. Today I talk with the author, Mac Barnett, and the illustrator, Sarah Jacoby, about how this book came to together.

First up, Mr. Barnett

Hi Mac! Margaret Wise Brown. MWB. When did it first occur to you that you should write a bio about her?

My agent, Steve Malk, has a deep knowledge of children’s books, and we both like to talk about the history of children’s books. We were on the phone, and I was off on a long tangent about Margaret Wise Brown. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. We hung up, then Steve called me back and suggested I write a book about Brown. I was surprised that I was excited about the idea—I don’t gravitate toward picture book biographies. But I thought there was an opportunity to write something about Brown’s life and work that was unconventional, like she was.

How did you go about structuring this story? Did that change over time?

I promised my editor I’d get the manuscript to her in a year. Then the book took three years to write. (Sorry, Alessandra!) I wasn’t really able to crack the project until I stopped thinking about it as a picture book biography and instead approached it as an essay about picture books, written in picture book form. A picture book essay.

The book alternates between episodes from Brown’s life and readings of her work. The text and art employ formal maneuvers Brown pioneered. There are references to—and interpolations from—Brown’s books. And the whole thing is structured around an anxiety over life’s brevity and complexity, and an appreciation of the brevity and complexity of picture books, too.

I’ve heard tell that there are still bunches of unpublished MWB stories, rhymes, and songs. How do you feel about some of these seeing the light of day?

The posthumous phase of Margaret Wise Brown’s career started almost immediately after her death in 1952. I suppose a careful reader of any posthumous work might consider that the author’s absence from the editorial process. The author may not have wanted a particular book to come out that particular way, or at all, and that knowledge may well affect your reading. But generally speaking, nothing I know suggests that the ongoing publication of Brown’s work is contrary to her wishes.

(Genuinely curious, yet slightly morbid side question: How would you feel about something you’ve written being published posthumously?)

Morbid answer: If I collapsed at my desk upon finishing this interview, there are manuscripts in my drawer I’d hope would be published.

In what ways do you think the two of you would have gotten along? In what ways do you think you would disagree?

The most intense moment I had researching this book was in the library of the Bank Street College of Education, where Margaret Wise Brown studied to be a teacher but ended up becoming a children’s book writer instead. Lindsey Wyckoff, Bank Street’s archivist, brought me Brown’s student file. Reading a piece of her schoolwork called “Writing for Five Year Olds” was one of most intense experiences I’ve had as an author. I cried several times. The sense of connection to another person, in another time, was overwhelming. So many sentences Brown set down in 1939 were ideas that in different words—sometimes only very slightly different words—I’d been thinking about and talking about for years. Like this bit, right at the beginning:

In any writing . . . whether it be metaphysics or poetry or political economy or children’s stories, there is one common touchstone around which the value of the writing revolves, there is one final determiner or common denomination that gives the writing truth or falseness, and that is the reality in which the writing is concerned. What, then, is a five-year-old child’s reality and concern?”

That’s the question right there. That’s the whole shebang. And here’s Brown’s answer:

As adults we have forgotten, so we return to the child himself for our leads, and to what is left in us that is five-year-old, that in contact with children revives and responds to their interests and feelings.

Amen.

As for disagreements, I’m sure we’d disagree on all kinds of things. I disagree with people all the time, especially about books.

Do you have any MWB deep cuts to recommend?

I’m fond of a book called They All Saw It, illustrated with black-and-white photos by Ylla, one of the 20th century’s renowned wildlife photographers.

In this case, the pictures came first. Ursula Nordstrom had the rights to some of Ylla’s work, and asked Margaret Wise Brown to pick out some photos and make them into a picture book. That’s a tough task, but Brown makes it look effortless, concocting a mystery that pays off beautifully, hilariously, with a finale that echoes the last sentence of Gogol’s “The Nose.” It’s a killer read-aloud.

I spoke with Sarah Jacoby about the illustrations.

Hi Sarah! How familiar were you with Margaret Wise Brown’s work before this book?

I actually only knew a few of her books. But those few were absolute childhood favorites. The Runaway Bunny was the book my mom would read to my sister and I softly at night.

When I started this project I went home and found our very worn copy of the book; the pictures were just as I remembered-the bunny tree and the bunny cloud were so deeply ingrained in my mind.

Goodnight Moon and Mister Dog were nightly standards as well, but as far as her many many other books, I wasn’t aware that she wrote them. Truly I had no idea she was so prolific. That’s the sneaky thing about writers maybe. Or perhaps I’m a bad fan.

One of the many pleasures of working on this book was discovering Margaret’s penchant for discovering fine artists and pairing them with her stories. It was interesting to see records of her finding Esphyr Slobodkina and Ylla in Hollins University’s archives, then seeing the books themselves. It was fascinating to see her stories come alive through such different artistic voices.

I would imagine biography has an added layer of difficulty for an illustrator – you have to accurately represent real people/events. How did you approach this?

Well yes, this was a scary aspect of the project. I know there are very devoted Margaret Wise Brown fans and I certainly didn’t want to offend them. I did a lot of visual research and practiced painting the people of this book a whole lot before embarking on the final art. I visited actual places when I could, like The Only House.

I think it’s very important to get as close as possible to the thing you’re trying to visually describe-for me it’s often about “vibe”. You can check out some of the research I did on a process blog I made: https://veryimportantmargaret.tumblr.com

My style in general isn’t the most photorealistic, so I appreciate everyone on this book team being patient with the early samples of Margaret I sent along to prove to them I could paint someone with some basic resemblance.

We landed on my natural style-a soft watercolor/gouache approach. The looseness of watercolor in general was helpful-it can be forgiving to paint someone vs. draw them with lines. It becomes a little bit more about the impression as opposed to the literal nature of the line-it’s more forgiving.

Then there was also a copy editor towards the end of the process-thank goodness for them-they helped make sure there was the correct amount of steps at the New York Public Library, details like that.

Some scenes, like the scene with Margaret and Ursula having tea on the steps of the library, ended up being edited several different times for accuracy’s sake. We needed to have both lions in the scene, but also desired to see Margaret and Ursula up close. That’s a tricky thing because you’re asking to see the scene up close and far away at the same time. Thus, we ended up making the scene with an intense perspective.

These are problem solving approaches that don’t come naturally to me, but are necessary for a historically accurate project. My point: I had a bunch of help. I ended up re-painting things more than I ever have for other books.

The book shifts from the Margaret Wise Brown story to scenes of a rabbit librarian sharing the book to bunnies – how did you hit on this idea?

I wonder if you can imagine the manuscript for this book? Let’s see if I can tell you about it. It was a lot of words and a lot of questions. It seems natural, to me, to think that a biography would showcase images from a person’s life. But the way Mac wrote this didn’t require that at all. That was the best part about the manuscript-the so many open ended questions. Do you know what I mean?

Eventually I had to make sketches. I had to think about who would actually be asking all the questions in the book. Was it a person? A friend of Margaret’s? A ghost?

Hollins Special Collections

The genius thing about this book is that it addresses Margaret’s life, but also her legacy and the complexities of the library as an institution. I thought that if “the important thing about Margaret Wise Brown is that she wrote books”, then it would be perfect to show how Margaret now lives through books and through the library. I’m really excited for the moment when a librarian is reading about this bunny librarian, who is reading about Anne Carroll Moore etc-it’s librarians all the way down.

Why is the library full of bunnies you ask? Well, Margaret had this woman that she loved in her life, Michael. They would write to each other. In my research I came across letters where they referred to each other as “little bun”.

When I saw these letters it occurred to me to create a world full of little bunnies for Margaret. I wanted to pay tribute to her love.

Were there any unique style choices for this book? Did you look to any of MWB’s books as guides?

Oh I looked at as many books as I could. But, as I mentioned before, one of Margaret’s things was collecting very different artists to illustrate her stories. Mac does a similar thing. It was for this reason I thought it was important to keep to my most natural style and not to try something too forced and outside my wheelhouse (like all animal photography?). I did keep returning to two books in particular: Goodnight Moon and The Important Book. The former because that’s the book and the latter because that’s this books’ namesake. I initially tried to make the book exist in only Goodnight Moon colors, but they’re so bold-it’s really tricky to deal with them. Things end up looking very Christmas-y. I also played with the theme of black and white spots interspersed with color spreads-like Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny have, but that wasn’t holding together terribly well. The spots remain, but they’ve got color.

The art in The Important Book is very still life study-y and that approach didn’t feel native to me either.

I did appreciate the size and shape of that book, though, as well as the type design. Those ended up influencing the design of The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown.

Finding the right type solution was a fun adventure. Some fonts had too much character, some were a little too classic (i.e. boring). I ended up doing a lot of research about design in the late 30s and early 40s to see what was actually happening type-wise.

I’m not sure if this a “style choice” but: it was very important to have several sets of time in the art – a modern time, a historical time, and an abstract time. You’ll notice that all of the historical time images of Margaret doing things have a slight border.

That’s to indicate that these images are contained by something-like the book the modern librarian bunny is reading. Everything else is full bleed (fills up the whole page).

Thank you Sarah and Mac for taking my questions!

Here’s a video Mac Barnett made for a librarian preview taling about the book:

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.

Comments

  1. Thank you Travis Jonker for posting this interview with Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby. I think Margaret Wise Brown is beaming with pride as these words about her are brought to life. She was one in a million.

  2. Linda Mitchell says:

    Thank you for this lovely interview. It’s rich in information and that behind-the-scenes look that we librarians love! I have a student at Hollins Univ. and didn’t really start fanning over MWB until stopping by the library there and seeing the impact she has had on children’s books. I look forward to reading The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown.

  3. Fantastic post, Travis. As a PB biographer, I feel Mac’s creative pain :) and am so glad he found his way into and out of MWB’s story so he and Sarah can share it with readers.

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