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Biographical/Autobiographical, Early/Young Readers

THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN by Mac Barnett Illustrated by Sarah Jacoby

I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority in my opinion of this book, but here goes…I found it included with a list of books readers thought should be considered for the Newbery Award this year. As I loved Brown’s work as a child and still enjoy Mac Barnett’s picture books when reading to children, I was anxious to read it.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown is an unusual biographical look at the author, Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote what we now think of as classics like Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny.  (As a child I loved her Little Golden Book stories like The Friendly Book and The Color Kittens.) I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of the book:

You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages, so I am just going to tell you some important things.

Barnett does give us some important facts about Brown: (1) she wrote books; (2) she loved animals and flowers; (3)her books were rejected for purchase by the NY Public Library; and (4) she refused to write down to children in her work.

But sometimes you find a book that feels as strange as life does.

These books feel true.

These books are important.

Margaret Wise Brown wrote books like this, and she wrote them for children, because she believed children deserve important books.

Barnett chooses some events from Brown’s life that will hopefully pique the reader’s interest and perhaps spur some of them to look further into this author’s life.  However, he also chooses a couple of incidents that, while colorful, don’t really advance the story or give us insights into Brown’s personality, struggles or accomplishments.

For me, I felt too many of those precious 42 pages were spent philosophizing (ranting?) about how some people can’t accept new ideas or stories, breaking the fourth wall with readers to explain how many pages are left, and a bizarre tangent about a wooden doll who was a companion of the library “expert” who vetoed purchasing Brown’s books. The result is a somewhat pretentious tone that actually separates the reader from the content–the exact opposite of what Margaret Wise Brown strove to achieve in her written work.

Jacoby’s illustrations have a soft, almost watercolor feel, with blurred edges that evoke the artwork in Brown’s original Little Golden Book titles. These felt true to Brown’s work and intentions and helped to soften the tone of the text.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown is an exciting concept for a biography that just didn’t completely work for me.  It might whet young readers’ appetites for more information about Brown or for Brown’s work, but it doesn’t stand well on its own.


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