The Read Balloon: Margaret Wise Brown’s The Color Kittens

color kittens

If the color kittens only have primary colors of paint, then how do they make PINK, Margaret Wise Brown, huh? HOW DO THEY MAKE PINK?

Really what I wanted to write about here was The Color Kittens, this psychedelic Little Golden Book we’ve been into lately. It’s nominally a book about colors, containing such important life lessons as “blue and yellow make green.” Just this morning Harper was discussing primary colors with her daddy and said, “Oh! Like Color Kittens!” and ran to get the book to show him. Cute. My favorite is when she “reads” along the part that goes “O Wonderful kittens! O Hush! O Brush!”

color kittens

But also THIS BOOK IS INSANE. And I LOVE it.There are these two kittens who have all these cans of primary-colored paint but what they really want is green, and they make a lot of other colors and then finally they make green. Okay. Then the educational part ends and they go to sleep and share this wild dream about, among other things, a transforming rose bush and dancing Easter eggs. The illustrations are wonderful mid-century dreaminess. There’s something incantatory and dreamlike about the whole book, what with Margaret Wise Brown’s typical random insertions of rhyming passages here and there.

In fact the more I thought about this book the more I started to wonder about Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote it along with, like, every other children’s book ever. I love how totally weird her books are, even the ones that are accepted as children’s classics, like Goodnight Moon. (I mean, Goodnight nobody?) And do you know what I learned? That she was a fascinating figure.

margaret wise brown

Brown's NYC home lacked electricity, so she draped every room in fur and hired small elves to stoke the fires. Ok, one of those things is true.

Here are some of my favorite MWB tidbits I have gathered.

1)      Brownie (as she was known to her friends, of which I would like to count myself one of), dreamed many of her stories and wrote them down in a notebook next to her bed as soon as she woke up. No kidding.

2)      Her “here and now” philosophy (which basically was the idea that children would rather read about their own lives than fairytales and the like) was developed at the famous Bank Street School, where Brown worked with kids in order to understand how they told and wanted to be told stories.

3)      She was so prolific that she wrote under a slew of pen names so as not to flood the market with MWBs, including Timothy Hay, Golden MacDonald, Kaintuck Brown, and my personal favorite, Juniper Sage, which just happens to also be the name of my children’s author-themed burlesque dancer alter-ego.

4)      Her books made her rich and she lived extravagantly, buying a street vendor’s entire cart of flowers with her first royalty check. I plan to do this with my next advance. Then I will hide amongst the hydrangeas so my husband can’t find me to slap me senseless.

5) When she was in New York (the Brooklyn native also had an island home in Maine called The Only House), she lived in a tiny cottage nestled among tall buildings in the West Village, and you can read about the current life of Cobble Court here and oh my god can I please live there (minus the extensive, gut- and wallet-wrenching renovations).

margaret wise brown's cobble court

What's that, Brownie? You want me to be a part of The Bird Brain Society with you and your friends and declare random days to be Christmas? Okay, I'll be right over!

6) All Brown’s royalties for Goodnight Moon were bequeathed to a boy named Albert Clarke with whom she was pals. He was nine when she died. According to an interesting Wall Street Journal article about Clarke, he is now a rumply, unemployment eccentric who throws out his clothes whenever they get dirty, has been arrested for vagrancy numerous times, and believes Brown was his real mother. Hm!

7)     Brown had love affairs with the Prince of Spain, John Barrymore’s former wife Michael Strange (aka Blanche Oelrichs), and at the time of her death was engaged to marry a Rockefeller.

8)      While on book tour in France, the 42-year-old Brown died two weeks after an emergency surgery. Get this – she kicked up her leg can-can-style to show her doctor who well she was feeling, and the kick dislodged a blood clot and sent it sailing to her heart.

So think about all that the next time you read The Runaway Bunny!

little fur family

My favorite part of Brown's The Little Fur Family is the song that ends, "This is a song." WTF, Brownie. WTF.

3 responses to “The Read Balloon: Margaret Wise Brown’s The Color Kittens

  1. Brownie, we hardly knew yee!

  2. So this is a really old post, and you may not even be getting comments anymore but… HA! Really enjoyed reading this. I’ve been a fan of children’s lit since my english major days in college–I had a poster of Goodnight Moon over my dorm bed. Dork! Tonight I fell down the rabbit hole researching Margaret Wise Brown–as you must have–after swooning for the 100th time over her story “The Little Island.” Highly recommend it: puts my 4-year-old to sleep every time! It’s lyrical, magical, and more than a bit trippy and oddball in the middle. Wonderful illustrations by Leonard Weisgard.

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