A New (Old) Favorite Author: Barbara Cooney

Eliza Clark
May 24, 2011

Every season has its books, and summer is the season of Barbara Cooney.  The acclaimed author-illustrator loved the sea, travel and wild flowers - some of the best summertime pleasures we know.  And so, every summer, we find ourselves drawn to a certain corner of the bookshelf that's labeled "C."

As often happens, love of one book leads us on to discover a whole treasure trove of titles.  Cooney's National Book Award-winning Miss Rumphius is a huge favorite of ours, and has long had a place on our Savvy must-read-before-Kindergarten list.  More recently, my daughters picked out a stack of her other titles from the library, and we've been on a Cooney reading kick.  What a pleasure! 

Barbara Cooney began her career as an artist, and her pictures are wonderful. She illustrated all her books generously, loading them with full and often double-page color paintings.  The pictures tell the story alongside the text, with interiors and landscapes full of realistic detail that also capture a kind of naïve, child-like point of view.  Once familiar, you can easily spot a Cooney book when you see one.

As distinctive as her pictures are the sorts of stories Barbara Cooney chose to tell.  Many of her books are biographies.  They take us from a character's childhood all the way into adulthood, and in some cases to old age and death.  Cooney did not shy away from dark aspects of life such as illness, loss, and isolation.  Yet her faith in art, beauty, the journey of growing up and self-discovery shines through her pages.

On receiving the Caldecott Medal in 1959, Cooney said: "I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting.... It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand.... a man's reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child's. For myself, I will never talk down to-or draw down to-children."

And perhaps this is why, half a century later, children remain drawn to her books.  Her stories still challenge, and ask young children to consider big questions like whom they want to be, what they want to do, and how to make the world a more beautiful place.

Miss Rumphius

For the little ones, reading Miss Rumphius is like being taken on the knee of a lovely, eccentric, elderly relative and learning the amazing story of her life. This creaky old lady was once a very young girl too. A girl who sat on her own grandfather's knee and dreamed big dreams about traveling, living by the sea, and (as her grandfather instructed) leaving the world more beautiful than she found it. How she lives her dream is the story of this book; an unusual subject for a children's book, perhaps, but as captivating as they come. Little listeners will all wish for a great-aunt as adventurous and imaginative as Miss Rumphius.

Island Boy

This is story of daily life on an island in Maine over four generations.  The island boy is Matthias, one of twelve children, who goes to sea as a cabin boy and returns as a ship captain.  He is drawn back to the island eventually, and has his own family.  The book tells the story of a place as well as a person, and takes us through the course of a life span and beyond.  Cooney's love for the island's beauty and way of life are contagious.

Hattie and the Wild Waves

Hattie is a little girl growing up in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway at the turn of the century.  This semi-autobiographical study (Hattie is partly based on Cooney's mother) vividly depicts the life of a German immigrant family in a bygone era of ceremonious luxury.  The real story, however, is of Hattie's slow realization of the ways in which she stands apart from her family.  She listens to the surf crashing on the shore, and hears it speaking to her: "'You will make beautiful, beautiful pictures,' said the wild waves."  How does a young person discover her calling?- you and your children will have Hattie's example to ponder.

Emily by Michael Bedard, Pictures by Barbara Cooney

Emily Dickinson's life and work were strange, moving and very very beautiful.  Who better to introduce children to her bygone world than Barbara Cooney?  (No one, that's who.)  A little girl whose family moves in across the street from the mysterious poet is the teller of this tale.  She is intrigued by "the Myth" and waits for a chance to meet her.  The child and the poet exchange gifts, drawn together by music, flowers and the written word.

Eleanor

Who was Eleanor?  She was, from the beginning, "a disappointment to her mother," neither beautiful, nor a boy.  Her nickname was "Granny" because, her mother said, she was so "funny and old-fashioned looking."  She became an orphan at the age of nine, and went to live in her Grandmother's gloomy house.  She was shy and awkward.  This sad, lonely girl went on to become the first lady of the United States, and one of the most remarkable women in American history.  Barbara Cooney tells the story of Eleanor Roosevelt's difficult childhood and eventual flourishing in the care of a wonderful boarding school headmistress with compassion, grace, and, as always, beautiful pictures.  What a wonderful way for children to meet the great Eleanor!

From the Parents

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