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Marcia Brown and Her Books

by Alice Dalgliesh

The three little Brown girls, Helen, Janet and Marcia, lived for several years in a parsonage in Cooperstown, New York. It was a delightful place to spend one’s childhood, for there was Otsego Lake with woodland paths to be explored and, best of all, Natty Bumppo’s cave. The girls had a good deal of freedom and could explore — Marcia remembers that they liked to play in the Episcopal Cemetery; it seemed a tranquil place, and they would go to see James Fenimore Cooper’s grave.

All three girls liked to draw, and there was a Christmas when they had been given crayons, and bent earnestly over sheets of paper trying to draw angels flying over a red barn. They liked to make things, too. Janet made wonderful paper dolls. Marcia would go down to her father’s workshop in the basement and try to make elaborately jointed puppets — puppets being an interest that would go over into her adult life.

In school Marcia drew whenever she had the chance. She even drew in the margins of her books. Her seventh-grade teacher was particularly understanding and let her draw during class, provided she could keep her mind also on the school work in hand!

Of course there was the local library with books to be brought home. The librarian was a little surprised that twelve-year-old Marcia wanted to spend so much time with the picture books. She was beginning to want, even then, to illustrate books and to paint. Realizing that here was a child with a really passionate interest in illustrated books, the librarian allowed her to go into the closed stacks where the art books and illustrated books for adults were kept. There Marcia found the Doré, Dulac and Rackham illustrations and others. I am sure she was as absorbed and earnest about these first experiences as she is about her painting and her book-making today.

When she went to the State College in Albany, where she trained as a teacher, Marcia carried on her many interests, with art always in the foreground. Summers especially gave her the opportunity to develop various creative projects. In college she designed and painted stage sets, and one summer she was at the White Horse Beach Theater in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There most of her waking hours were spent in the scene shop.

By now she was fully determined to be an artist. She went to see Judson Smith, who gave her a scholarship. She studied under him for two summers at the Woodstock School of Painting and profited by his very individual method of teaching.

She drew and drew and drew — painted and painted. Meanwhile she was also teaching English and dramatics, but always her painting, her desire to illustrate books, was in her mind. If she wanted to illustrate children’s books, then New York was the place for her to go. She came down and was fortunate enough to find a part-time position in the New York Public Library. This gave her an opportunity to work with children and books, and many opportunities for storytelling in city playgrounds.

New York was exciting. She lived in an apartment on Sullivan Street. From her window she could see the busy life of that largely Italian section — the children playing in the street, on roofs and fire-escapes. Pictures and a story began to come into her mind. The Little Carousel began to take definite shape, its central theme the traveling carousel that was such a delight to the city children. It was just after the war, and when soldiers returned, green, red and black Italian streamers were everywhere in that district. The Little Carousel, you will notice, uses those Italian colors.

I don’t know how much concentrated work went into the making of the dummy of that first book. Experience with Marcia’s later work makes me know that many illustrations may have been drawn and discarded. But when it came to me, the dummy had all the freshness of the most spontaneous drawing. She reminds me that the day she brought it to us I was “too busy” (editors, beware!) to see her, and she withdrew with much sadness. She and the dummy climbed the stairs to another editor’s office, as there was an elevator strike. It happened that the editor had not climbed the stairs that day, and so, fortunately, Marcia and the book found their way back to Scribner’s. I accepted it — not without thinking it over for a short time, as one does before adding a new artist to the list. But I felt that here was an artist with great originality and many possibilities for future work. I liked the clever, simple use of flat color — so many young artists present their first work in too elaborate technique and color. Authors and artists worry about first books, but so do editors! An editor sending out a book by a new author or artist has all the feelings of a mother sending her child to school for the first time. Such a big group — will the child be noticed? Such a big country, so many books — will this one make its way? The Little Carousel made friends immediately.

At that time — still not too long after World War II — we were going a little cautiously with color, and I was pleased that Marcia’s next book, Stone Soup, was in limited color. Limited color, but such humor and spirit and gaiety of feeling! An old folk tale retold, Stone Soup appealed to children everywhere. It was the first of Marcia’s books to be a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal, as all her books were to be until Cinderella won the award.

By this time she had spent two summers on the island of St. Thomas, then Henry-Fisherman arrived in our office. We began to realize that here was an artist who brought something entirely different to each book. Here were the bright colors of the tropics, bold patterns in five flat colors. I look at the pictures now, and those perfectly beautiful end papers with their semi-abstract pattern of palm trees, the charming patterns made by sea and boats and fish throughout the book, and wonder why, why Henry-Fisherman did not have quite the general appeal of the other books. Children of the Virgin Islands in the West Indies and Negro children of this country love that appealing little brown boy who wanted so much to be a fisherman. They love him because Marcia really understands Henry and his family. I’d never noticed until this book came out how many reviewers lack words for color. Henry’s colors were usually “pink and light blue, yellow and brown.” We called them “coral and turquoise, gold and chartreuse and brown” — the commercial firms who make such products as textiles know the value of descriptive color words. And Henry is color!

I watched Dick Whittington grow, as I’ve watched a number of books grow, on the big working table in my barn studio in Connecticut, when Marcia was spending a summer there. Dick Whittington in its first appearance was in pen line with four colors. The story — first printed in an English chap book — called for a bolder treatment, however. Marcia had been working on wood blocks at The New School for Social Research under Louis Shanker, and linoleum blocks in two colors seemed to be the treatment for this particular story. Cutting a block for each color (and you can’t cover up the mistakes of a cutting tool — you have to start all over again) was a long process, but resulted in one of the handsomest books we have published. It reflected Marcia’s interest in the Middle Ages, which had begun long before with Howard Pyle’s books, and had continued through college, where she studied medieval music and poetry.

The books went on, with Skipper John’s Cook, made after many summers on Cape Cod, and Puss in Boots, who won much acclaim for his swashbuckling airs. Puss really began with a puppet that Marcia made, a very gay and gallant little cat with red leather boots and a plumed hat. The Steadfast Tin Soldier followed. It seems to me to be one of the best of her books, with its skillful suggestions of mood and feeling. She had always wanted to illustrate an Andersen story, but hesitated to attempt it until she felt ready for it. The translation to be used was given much thought, too. She selected the one by M. R. James because it is excellent, informal and suited to storytelling.

Then came Cinderella — with careful work on the translation and the research that went into the period setting. Cinderella has humor and gaiety and magic. It is the Cinderella I would, as a fairy-tale-loving little girl, have loved to own and read over and over.

It is an experience to see Marcia at work, to see her following her many art interests. She has never taken a complete commercial art course, but has selected many classes at The New School for Social Research, and this year a class at the Art Students’ League. Her prints have been exhibited, and the Library of Congress has purchased one for its permanent collection. It is even more of an experience to see her with a group of children, drawing and telling stories, and to note her easy, friendly relationship with them. That is where her training as a teacher and her library work with children stand her in good stead — as they do also in planning her books.

With her background in dramatics it was natural that puppet shows should be an outstanding interest. She uses hand puppets, which are flexible and easier to handle than strung marionettes. Her stage sets are pages of her books come to life. If only she could take her charming shows all over the country! But she has also to have time to work on books, and picture books take time, especially if an artist makes color separations. Perhaps some of her puppet show experience in Jamaica, where she spent a summer teaching puppetry at the University College of the West Indies, will sometime come into a book to be shared with many children. She has told me much about taking her puppet show into small villages where the children had never seen one, but so far there is no plan for a book. Some of what she saw in Jamaica went into the line drawings she did for Philip Sherlock’s Anansi Stories (Crowell), adding an authentic setting to the tales.

But what is Marcia Brown herself like, you may ask? Is she like Cinderella, always “good and sweet”? Haven’t you written about her as if everything were perfect and went easily for her, as if there were no struggles, no “temperament”? There are struggles — dummies made over (Dick Whittington had three), times of discouragement, and no artist is placid as a millpond; at least I’ve never known a good one to be! But Marcia has a wonderful sense of humor that carries her through difficulties. While she has an absorbing interest in her work, she is not an “ivory tower” artist, but one who is almost as eager about many other things as she is about painting and illustrating. Music is one of her great interests: she loves concerts, the opera, ballet, and finds time to go to them. She plays the recorder and is learning to play the flute. It is all “refreshment,” she says, and all helps with the making of better books.

From the August 1955 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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