February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Three-Time Caldecott Winner Marcia Brown Dies at 96

Marcia_BrownCelebrated author and illustrator Marcia Brown, whose illustrious career was marked by three Caldecott wins and six Caldecott Honors, died on April 28 at her home in Laguna Hills, CA, due to complications from congestive heart failure. She was 96. She is survived by her longtime companion and editor Janet Loranger.

A prolific artist whose career spanned decades and shone with accolades, Brown was known for her willingness to embrace different styles and mediums, from her trademark woodcuts to Chinese calligraphy, gouache, pastel, pen and ink, and more. For her first Caldecott-winning book, Cinderella (Scribner, 1954), she employed dreamlike, romantic pastels. Brown’s masterly use of woodcuts in striking greens and reds won her a second Caldecott for Once a Mouse, an Indian fable laced with philosophical musings about a man who uses magic to transform a mouse into different animals—a cat, a dog, a tiger—before returning it to its former self. Shadow, her third Caldecott win, featured vivid, haunting collages and was inspired by her travels in Africa.

Her imaginative and innovative attitude to her work earned her critical acclaim. Her books garnered many honors, and in 1992, the American Library Association honored her with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her lasting contribution to the field.

Children’s book expert Leonard Marcus, who interviewed Brown for his book A Caldecott Celebration: Seven Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal (Walker & Co., 2008), told SLJ, “She felt that each story needed a different visual treatment, and she was prepared to learn a new craft in order to do it in the best possible way.”

Brown was born in 1918 in Rochester, NY. Though she had always been deeply passionate about art, she pursued teaching as a career, believing it to be a more viable option. Brown graduated in 1940 from New York State College for Teachers (now the University at Albany−SUNY) in 1940 and taught for three years before moving to New York City, where she studied art at New York School for Social Research with painter Stuart Davis.

Between 1943 and 1948, she worked in the Central Children’s Room of the New York Public Library (NYPL), where she developed the storytelling skills and foundation in children’s literature that would serve her in good stead as an author and illustrator.

While at NYPL, Brown began writing and illustrating, launching a long-standing relationship with publishing house Scribner seemingly by chance. With her first completed manuscript in hand, she headed to Scribner to speak with Alice Dalgliesh, as she related in an anecdote to poet and author Lee Bennett Hopkins, which he included in Books Are by People: Interviews with 104 Authors and Illustrators of Books for Young Children (Scholastic/Citation Pr., 1969): “Alice, who later on became a very dear friend, was too busy to see me. There I was, armed with The Little Carousel (Scribner, 1946) in complete dummy form and at such a high pitch that I burst into tears.”

Hopkins goes on to relate that Brown left the office for Viking, around the corner, to meet with editor Mary Massee. However, “there I found Viking tied up with an elevator strike…. So, rather than climb, I decided to wait for Miss Dalgliesh, who took the book. Years later I told the story to Mary Massee, who was shocked to learn of the great loss that the elevator strike has caused Viking!”

The Little Carousel was the first of nearly 30 books, such as Caldecott Honors Stone Soup (1947), Henry-Fisherman: A Story of the Virgin Islands (1949), Dick Whittington’s Cat (1950, all Scribner). Brown also wrote and spoke on children’s literature. Her book Lotus Seeds: Children, Pictures and Books (Scribner, 1985) included lectures such as “What Is a Distinguished Picture Book?” which she delivered to the New York State Library Association in 1949, and “There’s Something in the Air,” the 1984 Anne Caroll Moore lecture.

Brown’s woodcuts have been exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, and Hacker Gallery, among other locations, and many of her papers and works are housed permanently at the University of Albany.

Brown’s rich experiences informed her work, both in terms of technique and subject matter. Her extensive travels to Africa, Jamaica, and Europe gave her a strong understanding of folktales, many of which she chose to illustrate. Brown was also part of the first delegation of artists and dignitaries who visited China as a follow-up to Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, and she later studied Chinese calligraphy and painting at Zhejiang Academy and Fine Arts at Hangzhou.

The author mined many aspects of her life for artistic inspiration. When working on Cinderella, Marcus said, Brown drew upon her appreciation of dance to evoke the historical setting of France. “She said that she had found from her research that people moved differently, they struck different postures and poses at different times in history, so there was a kind of authenticity that she strived for in terms of the way she depicted physical movement.”

Brown also found ideas simply by taking in the world around her. She told Hopkins that her first book, The Little Carousel, came to her when she was living in a Sicilian neighborhood in Greenwich Village: “From my apartment window…I saw the little carousel arrive, and the episode that makes the plot of the story happened before my delighted eyes.”

Similarly, the two stone-carved cherubs that adorned the Scribner’s building found their way into Cinderella, according to Marcus. “She wanted to give Cinderella more time to get home at the end of the evening from the ball, and so on the page opposite the dedication she drew those two cherubs, one [of which was] grabbing the arms of a clock and stopping time.”

A lifelong learner, Brown never stopped seeking out new artistic methods. Jeanne Lamb, coordinator, youth collections, at NYPL, who, like Brown, worked in the Central Children’s Room, described her experience visiting the late author in the early 2000s at her studio in Laguna Hills.

“At the time, she was exploring the art of Chinese brush painting, so there were scores of sheets of paper hanging from clothes lines that she had strung throughout. Her excitement and warmth were infectious. I can still picture…us sitting around on folding chairs, quite literally surrounded by her art, chatting and laughing as if we had known each other for years. Marcia was an artist who was constantly challenging herself and pushing the envelope creatively.”

Jon Anderson, president of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, said, “It’s a testament to the scope and longevity of Marcia Brown’s work that her record of three Caldecott Medals and six Caldecott Honors has yet to be surpassed and that one of her books, Stone Soup, continues to be one of Simon & Schuster’s best-selling titles nearly 70 years after it was first published.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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