A new book is coming from 'Goodnight Moon' author, whose papers are at Westerly Library
In a vault in the Westerly Library, under lock and key just off the reference room, are 24 boxes filled with the life story of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of the kiddie lit classics “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny.”
The “Margaret Wise Brown Collection” includes information about the prolific children’s book author, who published more than 100 books before her unexpected death in 1952 at age 42.
There are typed sheets of paper of stories with handwritten corrections; illustrated storyboards of the book “The Little Brass Band”; and two first-edition tiny books called the “Little Fur Family” encased in rabbit fur book covers. There are personal letters, diaries, scraps of paper in Brown’s flowing cursive handwriting, and papers she wrote in college for creative writing classes.
The collection lived, unorganized, in a metal file cabinet at the library for years, until reference and special collections librarian Nina Wright set about organizing it. She started eight years ago, and today, the collection is neatly arranged and includes a 12-page summary of the contents. The papers and other items give a glimpse into Brown’s thinking, as she wrote and revised simple sentences that gave her books a sense of poetry and wonder. “Goodnight Moon,” written in 1944, has sold more than 14 million copies across the globe, according the publisher HarperCollins Children’s Books.
“There’s definitely interest in her from around the country and around the world,” Wright says as she unpacks some of the literary gems from marked grey boxes and displays the items on large table.
Recently, a professor from Wisconsin who was researching animals in children’s literature spent a couple days poring over the collection. A publisher from Denmark looked at the papers a few years ago, and a film crew from Japan working on a documentary on Brown visited about eight years ago, Wright says.
“She’s very popular in Japan,” Wright says.
Now, there may be renewed interest in the collection. HarperCollins has announced it is releasing a new unpublished book by Brown called “Good Day, Good Night” in October. It is illustrated by Loren Long.
Amy Gray, who wrote a biography of Brown called “In the Great Green Room,” discovered two fragments of a story in a trunk that Brown’s sister, Roberta Brown Rauch, had stored for years in her home in Vermont.
Gray, who bought the licensing rights to the materials in the trunk, discovered a letter in the Westerly collection that Brown had written to her publisher in 1950 about an idea for a book about waking up and greeting the world and then ending the day by saying goodnight, Gray told Wright. The letter helped her piece together the two manuscripts from trunk, which she had thought were separate stories.
“We are so excited about the new book,” says Library Director Brigette Hopkins, who often reads “Goodnight Moon” to her 2-year-old. “I have it memorized. It’s the quintessential children’s book.”
The publication of the new book is still months away, but Hopkins says the library will be planning some special events.
Brown, who was born in 1910 and grew up on Long Island, was a teacher for a brief time at the Bank Street School in New York City, an experimental school for child development study and teacher training. It was there that she met and became good friends with Jessica Gamble Dunham, the personnel director at the the school. Dunham and her husband, Gilbert Dunham, moved to the Stonington in 1946, and Brown often visited. Although Brown never lived locally, she had “great affection for the area,” according to a brief biography that goes with the Westerly collection.
Brown eventually became a children’s book editor and started writing children’s stories. She revised her stories after reading them to children at the Bank Street School.
Her first book, “When the Wind Blows,” was published in 1937. Over the next 14 years, she published more than 100 books for children. Brown loved animals and lived in a house in Manhattan that had no running water or electricity, Wright says. She was engaged to James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr., and was with him on a pre-honeymoon trip when she became ill.
After her sudden death while on vacation in France in 1952 — Brown died of a embolism after having her appendix removed — Dunham donated her friend’s possessions to the Westerly Library in 1957.
“She had an interesting life,” says Wright, who worked diligently to organize the collection and preserve it for future generations. “She had a sense of fun and friends in New York and Maine. … Her story would make a good movie.”
Hopkins, the library director, says it is an honor to house the collection and to think the Dunhams had faith that the library would be around to preserve their friend’s memory.
“It is so special to have this collection here,” Hopkins says. “They considered that this library would be in a position to keep the collection.”
While the library occasionally fills a display case with some of Brown’s belongs, the collection remains in a locked room and is accessible by appointment only.
This year, the Westerly Public Library is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding the Westerly Memorial & Library Association, which began in 1892. The organization raised half the $50,000 needed to construct and open the building in 1894. Stephen Wilcox of Westerly donated the land and agreed to match the $25,000 raised by local citizens. The association also owns and maintains Wilcox Park, which was donated by Wilcox's wife, Harriet, in honor of her husband in 1898.
The library is a private, non-profit corporation and receives about 25 percent of its funding from the towns of Westerly and Stonington.
In addition to the "Margaret Wise Brown Collection," the Westerly Library has acquired some unique items over the past 123 years, including a bust of Edwin Booth, brother of, yes, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It has a well stocked genealogy room with more than 3,000 local photographs and city directories for Westerly and Stonington. There is a sculpture of the Runaway Bunny in nearby Wilcox Park, which was installed in 1998. In 2015, the library was named a "Literary Landmark," in honor of Margaret Wise Brown. It is one of 150 such designations across the United States.
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