Leonard Marcus is a historian of children’s book literature, and has written biographies of children’s book authors including Margaret Wise Brown of Goodnight Moon, and most recently Madeline L’Engle, of A Wrinkle in Time among other novels. We met him for salads at Heights Cafe in Brooklyn Heights.
On finding his first subject
I was looking for a subject and one night I was in the village, there was a bookstore that a lot of people browsed in called Marlborough books and I saw Goodnight Moon. So I read it and it struck me that it was real poetry. It was so distilled. And I thought it was so miraculous that she wrote this poem that a two year old could respond to. And that I was responding to.
Then I read the flap and they made her out to be this glamorous figure. So then I began to explore whether there had been anything written about her. Margaret Wise Brown. She started publishing in the 30s. And she died at 1952 at 42. So she was like this comet. She had this short, brilliant career.
[Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon] took ten years. And at a certain point, I said to myself – it would be crazier not to finish it than to finish it. You gather all the facts and then you realize you still have to make a story out of it. It’s almost the same as writing a novel except you can’t make anything up.
A budding historian
One of the appeals of children’s books for me is that they are almost always illustrated. As a child I used to clip political cartoons from newspapers and make albums out of them. I saw them as art that was being thrown away and I didn’t think they should be. So it was like being a 10 year old curator. It’s sort of funny that as a child you might be doing something that you continue doing.
On his first interview
With this friend of mine in 5th grade, I started a newspaper which didn’t last very long. We thought we should have an interview in every issue. So I wrote a letter to the Mayor of the town, this was Mount Vernon NY, just north of the city. And he wrote back and he said sure. So I went over there with a friend and we were ushered in there by a policeman and he couldn’t have been nicer. His name was P. Raymond Sirignano. So his nickname was Patsy. I sat down right next to his desk and the top drawer of his desk was open. There was a big button that looked like it was a campaign button but really it was a joke button. And what it said on the button was: Fat Lips Patsy. And he saw me looking down on it and what he did was slam the door shut. So that was my introduction into the business of being an interviewer.
On telling the truth:
If something is verifiable and it’s coming from someone who knew the situation well and is willing to say it in print, then I think it’s important. I don’t think something that I would want to do would be to bring somebody down. But I think it humanizes someone to present them in a very complicated way.
On willing to be lucky:
If you go into the situation knowing enough of something, then you can recognize the good luck that comes your way sometimes.
When I started writing my book about Margaret Wise Brown, I went to the library to see what had been written about her. I saw one article in Life magazine from when she was alive, in 1946. And I was paging through it and on the second page there was as photograph of her in front of little wooden cottage in manhattan. There were a few of these things in New York, these little hidden houses. She was just the person to find something like that. She used it as a writing studio.
After she died, the house was going to be demolished. Somebody bought it and wheeled it down to Greenwich village and saved it. And it’s still there, on Charles street. When I saw the picture of that house I recognized it because I was living next door to it.
The main thing is this total immersion leading to a feeling that I have internalized the subject. And then I can start writing. And then this wonderful thing happens where you have a lot of facts that you’ve accumulated and they start forming a relationship. They suddenly start almost vibrating and you see what they mean.