Dear Father, hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds,
and guard with tenderness small things that have no words.
~ Margaret Wise Brown
Who doesn’t love Goodnight Moon, right? Has there ever been a more gentle, rhythmic narrative? Its cadence is so lovely and lilting – so soothing to both reader and child.
Our board book edition wore out many years ago because it was a ready stand-by at bedtime and went through countless readings. Sandra Boynton was another favorite, of course, but her stuff was problematic at that time of day because her comic rhymes lent themselves so well to farcical voices and gestures, which in turn led to giggles and squiggles and kids not falling asleep.
Not so Goodnight Moon – the literary equivalent of an Ambien. It draws you into that neat, safe bedroom, and you’re fighting sleep like the tucked-in bunny, yet you know it’s a losing battle – for both of you. Each goodbye, each fond farewell to moon and mittens and everything else is one more shift in the direction of the inevitable: restful, peaceful – aah…
The pictures are hard to separate from the text, and it might be that you’ll recall the illustrator’s name, Clement Hurd, before you’d remember the author. Hurd’s bunnies and bedroom are hard to forget, but the text came from Margaret Wise Brown – know much about her? She was a highly successful editor and children’s book author, and she penned about 100 books, including another you might know: The Runaway Bunny, also illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Here’s one by Brown you might not know about: The Sailor Dog, published posthumously in 1953. It stars Scuppers, a dog with wanderlust who can’t contain his urge to return to the sea – the place of his shipboard birth. Who knows how he ended up landlocked on a farm – who cares? Readers are thrown into the midst of a quest, and we materialize alongside our determined oceanbound hero – a car overland or a submarine undersea will not do. In terms of adventure, it’s the wildness of the waves or nothing. “Scuppers was a sailor,” Brown writes. “He wanted to go to sea.”
And he manages to get there – taking possession of a shabby, but apparently seaworthy vessel, and launching into the deep. All goes well at first, but a nighttime storm leads to shipwreck, and Scuppers ends up on a deserted isle. He survives by his wits, and, inspired by a dream, makes the requisite repairs on his boat in order to continue his journey.
Eventually, he puts into port at an exotic locale, where he replenishes his supplies, replaces his tattered outfit with some new duds, and heads out to sea again. “I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog,” he sings in the end. “I can sail in a gale right over a whale under full sail in a fog.”
Delightful – and so comforting to young readers, and so encouraging. The hero, Scuppers, sets out on his own to follow his lights and his passions, and persists despite obstacles and misfortunes. Indeed, the obstacles and misfortunes make the tale – there wouldn’t be any “Sailor Dog” story without the disruptions to Scupper’s plans.
It’s like the first reading from last Friday: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord,” writes St. James. “Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.” James tells us to motor forward, press on, keep going – like Job, enduring and making do. “You have seen the purpose of the Lord,” he goes on, “because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
What James describes, and what Scuppers ably demonstrates, is the cardinal virtue of fortitude, “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good,” in the words of the Catechism. “The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” (#1808). And like the other cardinal virtues, fortitude can be cultivated by everyone, including those with no faith – and, in fact, they prepare us for faith. “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort,” the Catechism teaches us. “They dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (#1804).
I believe that was true of Margaret Wise Brown herself. She did have a grandmother who was pious and “whose conversation was laced with quotations from Scripture,” in the words of biographer Leonard Marcus. Also, Grandma Naylor would see to it that Margaret and her siblings got to Sunday school whenever she came to visit. Other than that, Brown had little exposure to religion and apparently practiced none as an adult. Plus, her parents’ unhappy marriage made for a troubled childhood, and she herself suffered a string of tumultuous affairs and frustrated engagements before dying suddenly at the age of 42.
Yet Brown bravely faced down adversity throughout her life, and did so with considerable aplomb. She went to college over the objections of her father and excelled. Although she never had children of her own, Brown developed a keen insight into how they navigated the world, and through her books became the confidant of countless youngsters. It seems clear that Brown’s human efforts really were touchpoints for grace, and certainly grace manages to sidle through her writing – something highlighted in an especially poignant way in Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, particularly in its 2001 HBO iteration.
Emma Thompson stars as the ailing scholar Vivian Bearing, and Eileen Atkins plays Vivian’s former mentor, Professor Evelyn Ashford. Toward the end of the play, when Vivian is bereft of all hope, racked with tumor pain and spiritual distress, Ashford comes to visit her in the hospital.
Hoping to comfort her anguished former student, Ashford decides to read from Runaway Bunny which she’d just purchased as a birthday gift for a nephew.
‘lf you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.’
‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman, and I will fish for you.’
As Ashford calmly reads, Vivian gains her composure and a measure of peace. “Look at that,” Professor Ashford comments. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.”
The soul of Margaret Wit Brown, the unsettled seeker behind that little allegory, would’ve been no exception.