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Marcia Brown

by Janet A. Loranger

Thirty-seven years ago, Marcia Brown published her first picture book for children: The Little Carousel.* On June 28, 1983, she received her third Caldecott Medal for Shadow. Those years from 1946 to 1983 have encompassed one of the most distinguished careers in American children’s books. That her latest book has received such a signal honor and that she is the first illustrator to be awarded the medal three times are evidences of the undiminished vitality and richness of her contribution to the field. It is an uncommon achievement.

The nourishment of such a gift and such an achievement comes from many sources. Marcia grew up in several small towns in upstate New York, one of three daughters in a minister’s family. Everyone in the household loved music and reading, and her father also passed along to her, especially, his joy in using his hands. From childhood Marcia was allowed to use his tools and learned to respect and care for them. And from her own workbench and tools, in later years, have come the wood blocks and linoleum cuts that illustrate such handsome books as Once a Mouse… (1961), How, Hippo! (1969), All Butterflies (1974), and Backbone of the King (1966). Marcia feels that the most important legacy her parents gave her was a deep pleasure in using her eyes — for seeing, rather than merely for looking. Her keen delight in the details of nature and her acute observation of them are evident in all her books — most dramatically, perhaps, in the beautiful photographic nature books Walk with Your Eyes, Listen to a Shape, and Touch Will Tell (all Watts, 1979).

As a college student, Marcia was interested in botany, biology, art, and literature. During summer vacations she worked in Woodstock, New York, at a resort hotel and studied painting with Judson Smith, whose criticism and inspiration have remained an important influence in her life and art. After graduation she taught high school English, directed dramatic productions for a few years, and worked in summer stock. Some years later, she became a puppeteer in New York City and also taught puppetry for the extra-mural department of the University of the West Indies.

When Marcia moved to New York City, her interest in children’s book illustration drew her to work in the Central Children’s Room of The New York Public Library, where she gained invaluable experience in storytelling and an exposure to the library’s large international and historical collections. Here, too, she received encouragement from such outstanding children’s librarians as Anne Carroll Moore, Helen A. Masten, and Maria Cimino.

Marcia’s particular interest in folklore and fairy tales is apparent to anyone familiar with her books. Marcia believes strongly that the classic tales give children images and insights that will stay with them all their lives. To each of these stories she has brought her own special vision, her integrity, and a vitality that speaks powerfully and directly to children.

A very important influence in her life and in her books has been the stimulus of travel — that mind- and eye-stretching jolt out of the usual. Marcia has traveled widely in Europe, Great Britain, Russia, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, including China. If she has a “home away from home,” it is Italy, the country with which she has felt most profoundly in tune. She lived in Italy, off and on, for four years, spending much of her time painting. Felice (1958) and Tamarindo! (1960) are books that grew out of her love for that country and her friendships with Italians. Marcia still writes to friends there, in Italian, and is able to converse with them in the language when she calls them on special occasions. France, too, has a special place in her life, and she spent over a year there; while living in Paris, she studied the flute with a member of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. On a speaking trip to Hawaii she was so overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the islands that she returned to spend many months and to do the research that was the basis for one of her most powerful books, Backbone of the King, a retelling of a great Hawaiian hero legend.

In the late 1960s Marcia gave up her long-time residence in New York City and moved to a small town in southeastern Connecticut. For the first time she was able to design and build a studio to fit her needs. It is a large room with a balcony at one end, a high ceiling with two skylights, and areas for doing painting, woodcuts, drawing, photography, sewing, and flute playing. The house is surrounded by hemlocks, and the woods nearby are filled with possums, raccoons, deer, squirrels, and birds. Not far from her property is the small river that provided the inspiration and the evocative winter photographs for her only filmstrip, The Crystal Cavern, published by Lyceum Productions in 1974. The plants, trees, wildflowers, and animals — and the changing seasons — are a constant source of stimulus and delight. Her greatest problem is finding time for all the interests she wants to pursue at home and also for going to New York to attend operas, ballets, concerts, and museums — and for traveling.

Most days, Marcia gets up early and spends some time reading while she has her breakfast. Just now, she is interested in the recently published book about a journey through the byways of America, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon (Atlantic-Little). She finds many of the conversations the author had with residents of small, out-of-the-way villages the stuff of living folklore. Later, she might go to her studio and practice Chinese brush painting, a technique which first interested her in 1977 and which she began to study seriously, with a teacher, two years ago. Her paintings of lotuses, bamboo, plum blossoms, birds, and dramatic landscapes fill the walls of her living room and studio. She has begun to exhibit, along with other artists practicing the technique, and has sold several paintings.

If she has a sewing project, as she often does, Marcia will spend time on the studio balcony, where she has set up a sewing area. And each day, she faithfully practices her flute. She feels very fortunate to be studying with John Solum, a much-esteemed concert flutist, who lives in a nearby town. When she sews or paints, or works on illustrations, there is always music — as necessary to her as food. Her love of music and the dance and her deep understanding of them perhaps account, in part, for the grace, rhythm, and strength of her writing and illustration. Most certainly they are profound influences. Because her work requires solitude and long stretches of concentration, she often does not see as much of her friends as she would like to, but she accepts this fact as a price that must be paid.

Marcia Brown’s books have unquestionably stood the test of time. Nearly all of them are still in print — a certain proof of their enduring hold on generations of children. Never has Marcia been interested in passing fashions in children’s book illustration. She has worked in many media but not for the sake of variety; rather, she has always let the story and her feeling for it determine the medium and the style. Her particular vision and her uncompromising integrity have been rewarded in the past: two Caldecott Medals (for Cinderella in 1955 and for Once a Mouse… in 1962), six Caldecott Honor books, two nominations for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature, and the Regina Medal. Now, after so many years of creating memorable children’s books, Marcia stands in a unique position — one abundantly deserved. It is gratifying that the children’s librarians of America, the dedicated people who bring children and books together, have honored her in so special a way.


 

*Except where another publisher is indicated, all books mentioned are published by Scribner.

From the August 1983 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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