Marcia Brown, winner of an unprecedented three Caldecott Medals and six Caldecott Honors, is an American artist who has, for some forty years, chosen to use her art for the purposes of creating wonderful children's books that prove to be perennial favorites. While her artwork is exceptional, contributing as much to the quality of her books is the intensity of her embrace of the world, the arts, traditional tales and the customs of other peoples. On the one hand, she is the product of a thoroughly American childhood and life and on the other, she is fascinated by the wide world and has roamed it harvesting ideas for stories and new techniques that shape her art. (See Marcia Brown bibliography and book list.) She is also the winner of the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder award for the corpus of her work.
Born in up-state New York in 1918, Brown was one of three daughters of Clarence Edward Brown, a minister and his wife Adelaide Elizabeth Brown, a homemaker. As a consequence of her father's calling, they moved a number of times as she grew up, but always in upstate New York and always with lots of access to the great outdoors. As she noted in an interview in American Artist, she and her sisters "were brought up to take enormous pleasure in the visual world; and since our childhood was spent in small towns with beautiful natural settings, we had plenty of opportunity to do so."
She related to Lee Bennett Hopkins that "My interest in making picture books comes in an almost unbroken line from the constant reading and drawing of my childhood. Pictures popped into my head as I read, and I read voraciously. Every Christmas, my sister and I received paints and crayons and large pads of drawing paper. Christmas morning would find us making paper dolls and painting pictures of sturdy red barns with angels and fairies hovering overhead. Sometimes Mother and Father joined us, for drawing seemed most natural for the whole family to do. We all loved to read and listen to stories."
Graduating high school she had many options in front of her, but few funds. She considered a career in art, in medicine and in teaching. While pursuing art studies at the Woodstock School of Painting, she simultaneously took her degree at the New York College for Teachers in 1940 (with a minor in biology to keep that door open.) Next, she taught drama in the Cornwall, New York high school for three years, then was a librarian in the New York Public Library for five years. It was as a librarian that she first began writing books and indeed completed four while working full-time, three of which had been published before she decided to leave the library and dedicate herself to her writing and art.
Her first book, The Little Carousel, was published in 1946 and was based on an incident in the Sicilian neighborhood in which she lived in New York City. Her second book, Stone Soup, came out the following year and won a 1948 Caldecott honor. This is my favorite among her works.
Since 1948, Marcia Brown has produced a book a year or so and has done that while pursuing all sorts of other interests. In the early 1950's she spent some time in the Caribbean, travelling, teaching puppetry arts, and coming back with Henry Fisherman: A Story of the Virgin Islands for which she won a Caldecott Honor, as well as a collection of Jamaican Folktales by Philip Sherlock which she illustrated, Anansi, The Spider Man: Jamaica. She lived in Venice for four years, becoming fluent in Italian and then spent a year in Paris both taking art lessons as well as studying the flute, classical music being another life-long love of hers. Staring in 1979, she has made a number of trips to China, studying traditional Chinese art and in particular brush painting.
There are a handful of things that characterize Brown's work 1) almost all of it is aimed at younger children, 2) it is dominated by retellings and traditional folk stories, 3) Brown reached out to the whole world for stories, and 4) while her art work is not in a particular style it is all very striking.
From a Horn Book Magazine interview you can glean her storytelling and artistic principles:
Children walk, arms open, to embrace what we give them. A child needs the stimulus of books that are focused on individual personality and character if he is to find his own. A child is an individual; a book is individual. Each should be served according to its needs.And
"I have never felt that children need any particular kind of drawing any more than they need any particular kind of writing. The clarity, the vitality of the message, the genuineness of the feeling - that is what is important."In her oeuvre are folktales from Africa, the Caribbean, India, China, Russia, France, England, Italy, and Persia. Brown was motivated in part by a firm belief in and commitment to the value of stories to link generations together from past to future. As reflected in her statements above, "the vitality of the message, the genuineness of the feeling" is infused in all her stories. There is never even a whiff of pedantic multiculturalism, preening puffery, or ethnic identity politics. She just gets right down to it and tells a great story and lets the story be what it is. You don't have to worry about faux sophistication.
In her art work for her children's books, Brown has spent several decades broadening and further broadening her repertoire of technique. While she has developed deep interests in Chinese brushwork and the arts of Italy, these are not directly reflected in her illustrations. However it would be difficult to characterize her illustrations as having a particular style. She has said that she always tries to let the story drive the nature of the illustrations and not to impose a particular style on it. She has used woodblocks, pen-and-ink sketches, collages, watercolor, and gouache among other media. I think the most that could be said in terms of what is consistent from story to story is that she favors strong lines and simple colors.
From a parent's perspective, her stories occupy an interesting and somewhat special niche. First of all, her retellings are excellent introductions for small children into the huge repository of western folktales (Stone Soup, Dick Whittington, Cinderella, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Puss in Boots, the Steadfast Tin Soldier, etc.). The strong lines and simple colors are always gripping to the very young (two to six years). The flow of the text is concrete - both challenging but also accessible. So while the young engage because of the illustrations and their close fit with the text, these books are also useful for children first learning to read. There is sufficient story line to keep their attention. These are certainly not Learn to Read type books but are in that scarce population of books that are great for reading to a child as well for them to use in those first steps towards independent reading. Almost all her work is either written and illustrated by herself, written by folktale collectors of the past centuries (Perrault, Andersen, and Asbjornsen) and illustrated by Brown, or is a collaboration with someone with a unique perspective such as when she worked with the ballerina Violette Verdy to produce Of Swans, Sugar Plums, and Satin Slippers. Unlike many other author/illustrators, she has almost never worked with another author. In addition the Laura Ingalls Wilder award mentioned earlier, she also received Caldecott Medals for Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper (1955), Once a Mouse . . . (1962), and Shadow (1982). Her Caldecott Honors were for Stone Soup (1948), Henry-Fisherman: A Story of the Virgin Islands (1950), Dick Whittington and His Cat (1951), Skipper John's Cook (1952), Puss in Boots (1953), and The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1954).
Of her thirty-two books, only six are currently in print, all of them to be recommended for reading to young children who will discover the love of reading and the rich stories they are heir to.
Let the final word be Marcia Brown's from her speech given to the American Library Association in 1992 on receipt of the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. The sentiment Brown expresses here applies equally to her own books.
Books like Mrs. Wilder's are like flashlights in the black bowl of a prairie night. They light, at least, the one step that has to follow another. Someone has to take those steps toward assuming full responsibility for the beginning lives of children.