Best known as the author of Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny (1942), B. pioneered in writing stories and poems for the youngest ages. During a brief but many-faceted and brilliant career, she completed more than one hundred PICTURE BOOKS; championed the work of such talented illustrators as Garth WILLIAMS and Clement HURD; persuaded Gertrude Stein to write her now classic children's FANTASY The World Is Round (1939); and helped develop the board book and other fresh approaches to book-making for very young children. With seemingly boundless energy and imagination, she kept experimenting, always hoping, as she once said, “to write a book simple enough … to lift the child for a few moments from his own problems of shoelaces that won't tie and busy parents … into the timeless world of story.”
B. was born in Brooklyn, New York, and reared in middle-class comfort on suburban Long Island, where she became a keen observer of nature. To her childhood friends she was known as the neighborhood storyteller, good at concocting tall tales and at putting her own words to old tunes like “Dixie.”
Always something of a daydreamer, B. had a lackluster student career until, as a young woman in the mid-1930s, she enrolled in graduate courses at one of America's most vibrant centers of early childhood development research—the Bank Street College of Education in New York. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, teacher at Bank Street, pursued the study of children's language development and its relationship to other aspects of the child's emerging self. Intrigued by the playfulness and inventiveness of children's everyday speech, Mitchell asked students to record thousands upon thousands of their linguistic fragments. It was found that children begin to play with sounds long before words have any meaning to them and respond to the rhythm, sound quality, and patterns of sound. At Bank Street, B. observed children, listened to the stories and poems they told, recorded voluminous quantities of speech, and found her own vocation.
The core of the Bank Street philosophy was the belief that children should be made full partners in learning. B. applied this idea in her writings by working in simple, gamelike forms and structures that the young might readily grasp and make their own.
In the Noisy Book series, she encouraged children to listen hard to the sounds and rhythms of their own everyday surroundings and to say and sing them back—the bee's buzz, the jackhammer's rattlings—as loudly as they liked. In Goodnight Moon, she invited the young to decide which objects of their world mattered enough to them to be remembered one last time at the end of the day.
B.'s legacy consists of a vast store of writings of incomparable tenderness, sparkling mischief, and poetic piquancy and grace. Best of all, perhaps, her stories and poems are beguilingly open-ended: in them, the child, not the author, always has the last word.
Bibliography Bechtel, Louise Seaman, “Margaret Wise B.: Laureate of the Nursery: Horn Book magazine, 1958 Marcus, Leonard S., Margaret Wise B.: Awakened by the Moon, 1992 Mitchell, Lucy Sprague, “Margaret Wise B.: 1910–1952,” 69 Bank Street, 19, n.d.
Leonard S. Marcus