In an ode to one of literature’s luminaries, Mac Barnett plays off the title of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book by asking readers: “What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?”
Subverting the structure of traditional picture book biographies, Barnett writes in a distinctive, chummy and inviting second–person voice that directly addresses readers of The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, often providing metatextual commentary: “Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years. This book is 42 pages long.” Barnett focuses on small, quirky details of Brown’s personality (she skinned a rabbit and wore its pelt, for instance), prompting readers to define for themselves what “important” even means when recounting a life. “The truth is never made of straight lines,” Barnett notes.
Most importantly, he captures the respect Brown had for child readers, as well as the essence of her legacy, while simultaneously communicating his own manifesto on what he believes children’s books can and should be (“every good book is at least a little bit strange”). Casting the influential librarian Anne Carroll Moore as the book’s antagonist—she believed Brown’s books were “truck”—the book pivots at many turns. “This is a story about a rabbit,” we read on page eight, though the narrative thread always returns to Brown.
Sarah Jacoby’s velvety-soft illustrations feature not only Brown but also a group of bunnies reading in a library (a nod to Brown’s Goodnight Moon). Jacoby’s details delight; look closely at the epigraph spread to see faint outlines of watercolor bunnies.
Could the absence of any backmatter be purposeful? After all, as Barnett shows through the details he selected from Brown’s life, “You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages.” It’s a refreshing and important truth.