It has been my good fortune to meet and know in person a number of those writers who have most touched my own life, and whose written legacy continues to inform, inspire and uplift me. Several shelves of my most treasured books stand apart because their bound content is always at eye level, and easily accessed as mood and spirit require. I am reminded at moments such as this however, that I failed to take the opportunity to personally get acquainted with one of the most cherished of that pantheon of creative mentors, especially since such a meeting would have been so easily accomplished given the fact that our pathways in both time and place crossed regularly.
Barbara Cooney may not be exactly a household name, but to generations of young readers, librarians and elementary school teachers, the mere reference should bring smiles and a vigorous shaking of heads. Born in New York City in 1917 to a household crowded with paints, brushes and artists’ tools, and a mother who exposed her twins to a world peopled by colors and textures, Ms. Cooney was destined to find a place among the most-celebrated illustrators of her time. Not only would she illustrate hundreds of books in her six decades of productivity, but she would discover a rare talent for writing as well.
Of the tens of thousands who manage to get their words in print - whether in the kingdom of adult fiction or the broad province of grown-up non-fiction – only a mere handful become successful writing for young readers. Even fewer prove to have the rare combination of vision and words to both write and illustrate. The thin but wisdom-filled volumes turned out by Barbara Cooney over the years, now translated into ten languages, are a gift to the world of children’s literature.
I share this brief background only to help introduce a theme which will undergird this column and others which will follow, and I choose the most well-known of her titles to establish the starting point.
“Miss Rumphius” is a story told through the eyes of a small girl, whose New England heritage ties her to sailing ships, and a Great-aunt named Alice Rumphius – a personage whose presence is a huge influence in the life of “young Alice”. Miss Rumphius tells her little grand-niece that she set out to live a life which would expose her to great books, world travel, and the chance to meet the people of other lands, all of which she has managed to do. It had also been her goal to eventually retire to her home by the sea, which she has also done. With that accomplished, the aging lady recalls a challenge given to her by a grandfather who told her that personal fulfillment would not be complete until “you have done something to make the world more beautiful”.
Temporarily bed-ridden in declining health, Miss Rumphius finds herself invigorated by the sights of wild flowers outside her window, and determines to see what she can do to bring even more beauty to the lands around her. The next spring, she acquires flower seeds – lupines – and begins to sow them far and wide, up and down the coast of Maine. The following year, as health returns, she expands her travels, spreading acres of beauty along roads and walkways, and becomes known as “The Lupine Lady”. All of this is not lost on “Little Alice” who, even though very young, is already pondering how she too might find a way to make the world more beautiful. She ends her story with the words: “But I do not know yet what that can be.”
As with all great allegories, “Miss Rumphius” is a simple tale, simply told, but with a quiet message which continues to resonate long after the first reading. Ms. Cooney’s gorgeous acrylic illustrations are filled with careful details which bespeak her intimacy with the land she loved.
Barbara Cooney passed away March 10th, 2000 in the home her son built for her in Damariscotta, Maine, at the age of 82, six months after the publication of her last book, “Basket Moon”.
P.S. On a June visit to mid-coast Maine I spent much time photographing the stands of wild lupines in many unexpected places. Mere coincidence ?
First published by Penguin in 1982, “Miss Rumphius” won the American Book Award, and is still in print today. Another Barbara Cooney masterpiece is “Island Boy” published in 1988.
My personal copy of Barbara Cooney’s best-loved work was presented to me by a third grade class in the Murray, Utah School District in 1994. Most of those “kids” who signed it are today married, some with kids of their own.