Behind every great childen’s story book is an equally fascinating adult narrative. Take these examples of just a few favorite children’s books…
J.M Barrie, the enigmatic writer that brought us Peter Pan, wound up adopting the five little boys who inspired the story of Peter Pan after both their parents died. He also donated all the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormand Street Hospital.
Roald Dahl who made us all believe in Willy Wonka, was also a pilot and intelligence officer in the British Air Force, married an American actress, and suffered through the deaths of two of his five children as well as his wife’s debilitating illness.
Kay Thompson delighted all with her Eloise series, who was partly based on her goddaughter Liza Minelli. She was also a successful singer, musician, composer and actress.
And in keeping, Margaret Wise Brown gave us the classic story of the Runaway Bunny.
If you are unfamiliar with the story – it is about a little bunny who dreams of running away and having his own independent adventures. Only his mom assures him that he can never get so far away that she won’t be able to find him. It is wonderfully illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Originally published in 1942, by Harper and Row, The Runaway Bunny has been continuously in-print, making it one of the most popular children’s books of all time, both in the states and abroad.
Many refer to Margaret Wise Brown as a genius of children’s fiction. Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1910, Margaret grew up in an unhappy household with parents who argued frequently. To cope with her environment she often escaped to the stories in her head, of which she said were always quite prolific.
After she graduated from college, Margaret spent many years studying children on a psychological level at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City. There, she communicated with her young audience on a get-to-know-you-basis, where she thoughtfully observed their relationships with books, story patterns and issues that affected them in everyday life.
Trying to emulate that same level of sincerity in her writing, Margaret attempted to capture the real-life problems and concerns that children faced instead of focusing on the then-popular fantasy and fairy tales peppering the children’s book market. Perhaps this is why Margaret’s books have remained so well loved for more more than 70 years.
Known to be quite charming and captivating, Margaret was a lover of animals and adventure, a world traveler and a practical joker. Linked in early relationships to William Gaston and novelist Preston Schoyer , it was poet, actress and playwright Michael Strange also known as Blanche Oelrichs, who ultimately captured Margaret’s heart.
Margaret maintained residences in both New York City and Maine. Her seaside cottage house in Vinalhaven, Maine affectionately called Only House, was a source of inspiration and entertainment. There, she wrote, spoiled guests and explored the wilds of the Maine coast.
Read more about her house here…
In 1950, Michael Strange died from leukemia and two years later Margaret was engaged to John S. Rockefeller Jr. At the time of their engagement Margaret was 42 and John 26.
By this point in her writing career, Margaret had published over 100 books, writing under four different pen names. She made out a will, which bequethed all royalities of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny to a neighbor friend’s son, Albert Clarke, whose mother Margaret had developed a friendly family type relationship with that stemmed from her early work at the Experimental School.
Tragically, in that same year that her will was acknowledged and her engagement celebrated, Margaret died unexpectedly at the age of 42, from an embolism, while on a book tour in Nice, France in 1952. The year that Margaret died, Albert Clarke turned 9. And here is where The Runaway Bunny story takes a dark turn…
In 2000, a Wall Street Journal reporter interviewed Albert Clarke, to see what became of the boy who had inherited the fortune of the Runaway Bunny/Goodnight Moon legacy. The full article is included here and details such an unusual story of unexpected outcomes, it is amazing that it hasn’t been turned into a movie or full-length book in and of itself.
It is fascinating to think about how there is both light and dark caught up in the continuously growing snowball that is The Runaway Bunny, proving yet again that in life, nothing really is simple. Not even in the world of make-believe bunnies. Not even in the gesture of a gift.
The Runaway Bunny continues to sell internationally year after year and has been translated into several languages. For most, it remains a source of comfort and inspiration. In 2006, it was interpreted as a violin concerto by composer, Glen Roven and performed by the American Symphony Orchestra.
For Albert, the books are a source of dis-contention and unease. Like the runaway bunny who can never outrun his mother, Albert will never be able to outrun Margaret. Her presence will be felt his entire life.