As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN
Author/Illustrator: Mac Barnett, illustrations by Sarah Jacoby
Publication Info.: Balzar & Bray, 2019
Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8
Category: biography, first-person POV, metafiction
Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years.
This book is 42 pages long.
You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages,
so I am just going to tell you some important things.
Overview (from the publisher):
“An exceptional picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the legendary author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and other beloved children’s classics, that’s as groundbreaking as the icon herself was—from award-winning, bestselling author Mac Barnett and acclaimed illustrator Sarah Jacoby.
What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?
In forty-two inspired pages, this biography artfully plays with form and language to vividly bring to life one of the greatest children’s book creators who ever lived: Margaret Wise Brown.
Illustrated with sumptuous art by rising star Sarah Jacoby, this is essential reading for book lovers of every age.”
What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:
Most picture book biographies use a narrative structure. There’s some sort of problem or goal introduced at the beginning. The main character attempts multiple times to solve the problem or achieve their goal. Typically the main character changes internally as part of the process (or society changes to accommodate the main character). And they achieve the goal or solve the problem at THE END.
So here’s the important thing about this book: it’s the first biography I’ve seen that employs a non-narrative structure, much like Margaret Wise Brown’s THE IMPORTANT BOOK, which Barnett mimics. Instead of starting with Margaret’s childhood and exploring her attempts to break into children’s publishing, Barnett riffs on the idea of what’s important about a person’s life. He also explores the idea of strangeness. Barnett’s non-narrative format is strange, but so were elements of Margaret’s life (as a girl she skinned her dead pet rabbit and wore the pelt!). And Margaret’s stories were often viewed as strange by snooty librarians who rejected them. But Barnett concludes that sometimes life is strange, so strange stories can feel true and important. And that’s what Margaret Wise Brown was all about.
Also notable is Barnett’s first-person narration and use of metafiction. He is clearly the narrator of the story, asking questions and injecting his opinions. His storytelling reminds me A LOT of his earlier metafiction, HOW THIS BOOK WAS MADE, in which he narrates the book-making process. A metafiction biography? Sure, why not?
I know this biography has generated a lot of discussion with some disputing whether it’s a biography at all. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Additional resources for authors and educators:
- Go behind the scenes to learn about the making of THE IMPORTANT THING at this blog.
- Discuss with your students: should some books be banned from the library, as Margaret Wise Brown’s were? Many favorites from Harry Potter to Captain Underpants often show up on banned books lists.
- Writing activity: What is the important thing about YOUR life? How would you write your life in the style of this book (and THE IMPORTANT BOOK)?