Julia Fine: Ghosts of Rebel Children’s Book Authors

Cover of the novel The Upstairs House, left, and portrait of the author Julia Fine, right Image by Natasia Mora

A fireplace, a red balloon, a green and ever-darkening room. One of the most popular children’s books of all time, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon is also one of the strangest. There is no linear story, only a disembodied voice describing a cozy-but-eerie bedroom, where an anthropomorphized rabbit child lies in bed under the watchful eye of “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush.’”

Chicago novelist Julia Fine began reading Goodnight Moon to her newborn son after what she describes as a “traumatic and isolating” postpartum experience, worsened by the pressure society places on mothers to be visibly happy with their babies. Struck by Goodnight Moon’s surreal yet comforting nighttime imagery, Fine sought out a biography of the book’s author and became enthralled with Margaret Wise Brown — a bisexual rabbit hunter whose writing studio, a strikingly out-of-place nineteenth-century farmhouse, can still be seen today in Greenwich Village. Fine learned that Brown was not only a prolific writer, but also a student of progressive early education and an early innovator of “here-and-now” children’s books, which focused more on delivering tactile and haptic information than traditional “once upon a time” plotlines.

But Fine also became fascinated with Brown’s personal life, including her long-term love affair with Blanche Oelrichs, an Upper East Side socialite who wrote plays and poetry under the pen name Michael Strange. In the early ’40s, Oelrichs was divorced by her husband and moved in with Brown, with whom she lived until her death in 1950. Two years later, while on a book tour in France, Brown was rushed to a hospital and underwent an emergency surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. Trying to convince her nurses that her recovery was going well, Brown kicked her leg dramatically, Rockette-style — dislodging a blood clot that traveled upstream to her brain and killed her instantly.

The stories of these two long-dead women — alongside her own postpartum experience — gave Fine an idea for a new novel. In The Upstairs House, a writer named Megan comes to believe the ghosts of Margaret Wise Brown and Michael Strange — the subjects of her graduate thesis — are haunting her newborn daughter. It’s a contemporary Gothic horror novel about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis that, as she writes in the author’s note, Fine hopes will “shed light on those first few weeks of parenthood, in the hopes of normalizing the intense, conflicting emotions women may feel in those early days.” The story alternates between Megan in present-day Chicago, and Brown and Strange in mid-century New York, while excerpts from Megan’s thesis reveal how Brown helped revolutionize children’s literature.

Since Fine and I are both caring for two small children these days, we corresponded via email about postpartum depression and psychosis, literary ghosts, fictionalizing history, and what makes Margaret Wise Brown such a fascinating figure.

Adam Morgan for Guernica

Guernica: Tell me about your first impressions about Margaret Wise Brown. What took you from reading her books, like many parents do, to going deeper?

Fine: I’d read The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon as a young child, and I remembered both fondly, but it wasn’t until I had my own children that I really got invested. My son has never been a good sleeper — he’s three and a half now and still up at 5 a.m. every morning — and we had a very elaborate sleep training bedtime and naptime routine from the time he was about five months to a year old, which included reading Goodnight Moon. I took the “consistent routine” advice very literally, though there’s nothing out there that says “read the same book until your eyes bleed.” While it didn’t do much for sleep, it meant I read Goodnight Moon hundreds of times over the course of a few months. I never got sick of it, just more and more intrigued, and when I started reading Leonard Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, I immediately knew that I wanted to write about her.

I was struck by how different the actual Margaret was from the woman I’d imagined. In hindsight, it makes total sense that the author of Goodnight Moon — a book that adheres to a fairly strict pattern and then breaks it in a bizarre, surrealist way — was something of a rebel herself. But since her books are for children, people tend to assume she was grandmotherly and milquetoast — basically the old lady whispering hush — which was entirely not the case. Margaret Wise Brown was a rabbit hunter who never had kids; she was bisexual; for a while she had a pet flying squirrel in her Greenwich Village apartment. When you read her journals and letters, she’s at once very vulnerable and also opaque. These incongruities were fascinating to me. The author of The Runaway Bunny hunted rabbits? It’s too perfect. She was just waiting for a novelist to come in and play.

Guernica: Did your research give you a good sense of who Brown was, or did she remain opaque?

Fine: She’s definitely hard to pin down. I was able to highlight what I thought I understood while still letting her remain somewhat mysterious. I suppose that’s a perk of writing her as a ghost. She was notoriously difficult to know deeply — when her friends were interviewed for her biography, they all said they adored her, but there was probably someone else who knew her better.

Guernica: How did something as cryptic as Goodnight Moon become a classic?

Fine: Margaret Wise Brown was a student of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who’d founded the Bureau of Educational Experiments (colloquially the Bank Street School) in New York City in 1916, and was at the forefront of a new, progressive brand of early education. Mitchell thought that toddlers deserved their own literature — not just fairy tales, but books written in their language, with their developmental needs in mind. She set up an actual laboratory; they’d test books on preschool classes and see how children responded, and tailor the books accordingly.

Margaret originally came to Bank Street as a student teacher, but it quickly became clear that she was better suited to helping Mitchell with her “here-and-now” storybooks than actually teaching. The “here-and-now” style was much more like the types of books we see being written for very young children today: “What sound does a car make?” Before Mitchell and Bank Street, children’s literature was almost entirely of the “once upon a time” ilk. Margaret’s work is more poetic than some of Bank Street’s other collaborators. She was very prolific, and very innovative: the touch-and-feel book was developed under her editorial eye, and she pioneered the board book with the knowledge that babies would be biting and ripping and exploring more than just the words.

That Goodnight Moon became a classic is really a testament to Margaret’s talent, and her work’s staying power. Anne Carroll Moore, who was the head of the relatively new children’s reading room at the New York Public Library, hated Margaret’s work. She wouldn’t let it in the library, and she was so influential that even her successor kept Margaret’s books out.

Guernica: “To fictionalize recent historical figures is to do a strange dance of conjecture and interpretation,” you write in an author’s note at the end of the book. How did you balance history with the story you wanted to tell? Did it result in any complications or hard decisions?

Fine: I took my responsibilities toward the historical figures in the novel very seriously. While I would never want a reader to think I’m presenting the definitive Michael or Margaret, it was important to me that I be as truthful as possible in my characterizations. At first my desire to present them accurately — especially in the scenes from the 1940s — was paralyzing. I found myself making lists of events Margaret had attended, writing down indisputable facts instead of actually writing a story. Eventually I had to dive in and present as accurate a depiction of their inner lives as I could.

I owe a massive debt to Leonard Marcus’s biography of Brown, Awakened by the Moon. I was able to extrapolate based on some of the conclusions he’d drawn about Margaret’s motivations, and build on his interpretations of her career trajectory. In a perfect world, I’d have been able to travel to all of Margaret’s old haunts and get my hands on everything in person, but the demands of having a small child made this tricky. As such, I used the old “follow the bibliography” trick, which means I was really very consciously walking in Marcus’ footsteps.

Everything Margaret and Michael do in their 1940s scenes is based on fact. There’s no way to know what they were thinking or saying privately, of course, but the bones of the story are real. It’s all cherry-picked so that I could make it The Upstairs House and not another Margaret Wise Brown biography; both the historical details and the fantasies have been carefully selected to make the impression that I needed them to make. I’m viewing everything through my lens as the author, and then again through Megan’s lens as the first-person protagonist.

Guernica: When did you know you wanted to write a novel about postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis?

Fine: I was the first of my close friends to have a kid, and I was very unprepared for the immediate postpartum period. I had stupidly imagined my body would immediately go back to the way it had been pre-pregnancy, and that the actual time spent in labor would be the extent of the physical and mental trauma of childbirth. Like many readers and writers, I’ve used literature to guide me through the more formative moments of my life — but I couldn’t find anything that felt entirely honest about the intensity and boredom and resentment, or the deep and painful love in those first few months.

After talking candidly with a lot of parents, I’ve found that riding that emotional postpartum rollercoaster is an almost universal experience. Many people don’t bond immediately with their new baby, a lot of people mourn the loss of the freedom they had before becoming parents. But the taboo about talking about these feelings can be very dangerous for new parents, and contribute to the isolation and guilt that primary caregivers — and specifically birth-mothers — are already feeling. I want to shout from the rooftops that you aren’t a bad parent if you want to toss your colicky baby out the window. You aren’t a bad parent if you’re miserable being up every two hours nursing an insatiable newborn.

The language we give to new parents is important, too. I think the terminology “baby blues” is so damaging. It’s patronizing and belittling and takes these very intense emotions and essentially tells mothers to get over it. Just because you aren’t having these feelings and experiences to the extent that Megan is in The Upstairs House doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing postpartum depression. We — specifically Americans — need to give parents more resources and more respect and more support across the board, and talking seriously about PPD in all its manifestations is a start.

Guernica: Rebecca Makkai once told me that fiction can change people’s minds in a way that nonfiction can’t, because someone who might not buy a nonfiction book about a topic can stumble upon it in a novel. Is that part of your hopes for The Upstairs House?

Fine: Definitely. I recognize that this is a pretty niche topic that I’m approaching unconventionally, but ideally my readership is both parents looking for validation and connection, and also people who have no connection to the postpartum period but will read this and decide that we need to do more for new mothers. I’m also really hoping to sell the Goodnight Moon haters on the brilliance of Margaret’s work!

Guernica: What did you learn from your research into the current state of postpartum treatments and care?

Fine: The United States is, unsurprisingly, behind much of the rest of the world in the support we offer new mothers. Our healthcare system is nonsensical and broken. It’s very easy to slip through the cracks. In the UK, the NHS provides in-home check-ins for new moms as a part of routine postpartum care. If we as a country really cared about new parents, we’d have something like that here. Instead we have a checklist from the pediatrician’s office to screen yourself for PPD symptoms, which is better than nothing, but nowhere near enough.

Research shows that having mother-baby units is so important in the treatment of PPD and PPP (postpartum psychosis) — in-patient facilities where new mothers can be treated for mental illness and babies can room with their mothers whenever possible, and the recovery process includes nurturing that bond. Unfortunately, this is rarely available to American parents.

Guernica: What Margaret Wise Brown books should everyone read and why?

Fine: I’m partial to The Little Island, which Margaret did with Leonard Weisgard. The illustrations are based on the view from Margaret’s cabin in Maine, and they won Weisgard a Caldecott. It’s the best blend of wise and nonsensical and soothing — very on brand for Margaret. I also love Little Fur Family, which is similarly bizarre and philosophical, and comes with a fun furry cover that my kids enjoy. The Quiet Noisy Book is a favorite, especially at the end when it details all the morning sounds — I think about the sound of “a slow fig ripening” constantly.

If you ask my kids, they’d say The Noisy Book, because it offers the opportunity to shout “NO!” at the end of every page, and Count to 10 with a Mouse, which I find a bit repetitive, though I am clearly not its audience. And you can’t go wrong with The Train to Timbuctoo, which lets my son live out his dream of listing train cars ad infinitum.