Monday, October 18, 2010

Barbara Cooney

We're deep into autumn now, so I wanted to share a book that begins with the vibrant changing of October leaves in the New England countryside. It's a lovely book I owned as a child and adored reading over and over again called, Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall, and illustrated by the very talented, Barbara Cooney.

It's a tale about a much simpler time; a 19th century family lives off the land trying to survive by the sweat of their brow and the skill of their hands. At the end of each year the
father must guide his single ox and loaded cart on a walk for 10 days to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (the original Farmer's Market) to sell his family's handmade goods, and his ox, in preparation for the long winter.

I remember as a child how funny and sad it was when the man kissed his ox goodbye. No doubt they worked many long and hard days together.

Cooney's illustrations are reminiscent of the early 19th century technique of painting on wood, and they seem to perfectly capture the essence of being in harmony with nature. There is an ordered and delicate simplicity to them, yet they are intricately detailed and organic in nature. Just stunning.

They almost remind me of those ancient Chinese paintings which depict man as a small element in comparison with the all-encompassing nature around him, reiterating that man is most happy--not when he is trying to control or compete with nature--rather when he coexists peacefully and accepts his natural place within it's delicate balance.

There must have been something very satisfying in those days about living by the rhythms of the land, and finding gratitude in the fact that everything necessary for existence was provided by the land. True, it was only available after a good amount of toil and trial, but what is more satisfying than using your hands to bring refinement to raw materials? I fear today, with our electronics and vacuum sealed supermarket foods, we are a little too disconnected from nature to fully understand that.

Ox-Cart Man won the Caldecott Medal in 1980 for being the most distinguished American picture book for children published that year. Even in it's simplicity there's something very telling about it. I don't know how to describe it, it seems profound, potent... all I remember is crying a few times I read it. It's a beautiful tale that will stay in your heart forever.

Born August 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, Barbara Cooney (along with her twin brother) lived there for only two weeks before moving to Long Island. Cooney's father was a stockbroker and her mother an artist. Cooney attributes her interest in art to the fact that tubes of paint, brushes, paper and other art supplies were readily available as she grew up.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in art history she studied lithography and etching at the Art Students' League in New York City. In 1940 she illustrated Bertie Malmberg's Ake and His World,and in 1941 the first of her own books, King of Wreck Island, was published (which I can't find an image of anywhere).

In 1942 Cooney joined the Women's Army Corps and later that same year married Guy Murchie, a war correspondent and author. They had two children. Murchie and Cooney divorced in 1947, and in 1949 she married C. Talbot Porter, a medical doctor. They also had two children.

Cooney draws what is familiar to her. Many of the plants drawn for Chanticleer and the Fox, were from her own garden, and chickens borrowed from a neighbor also served as models. Many of her more than eighty books have resulted from her travels to Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, England, France, Haiti, India, Tunisia and Greece.

Early in her career, Cooney worked primarily in scratchboard. Later she began working in pen and ink, as black and white were cheaper to print than color; then she worked with pen and ink with wash, and then she was allowed to use up to one color; then two colors; and then full color with other mediums such casein, collage, watercolor, and acrylic.

In a span of 60 years Barbara Cooney illustrated 110 children's books(!), 15 of which she wrote herself, 2 of which earned the prestigious Caldecott award (Ox-Card Man, and Chanticleer and the Fox), 1 which won the National Book Award in 1983 (Miss Rumphius) as well as many other award-winning books, including Green Wagons, Kildee House, Too Many Pets, When the Sky Is Like Lace, and Squawk to the Moon.

Once I heard about Miss Rumphius, I went out and bought a copy. It really is a beautiful story with a wise message.

It's about a young girl, Alice Rumphius, whose grandfather tells her about three important things to do in one's life: travel the world, live by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. So, Alice grows up and begins to travel the world cultivating many friendships along the way.

After many years she injures her back and decides it's time to settle down. So she buys a charming house by the sea.

But the aging Alice is not satisfied because she still doesn't know how to make the world more beautiful. One day she realizes she can plant lupine seeds all over the countryside.

By the next year the seeds have all bloomed into glorious clumps of blue, purple, and rose-colored lupines everywhere. "Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!"

She becomes known as the "Lupine Lady" and the village children love coming to hear about her adventures traveling the world. Her grand-nephew has the same desire to travel, and live by the sea, but she reminds him that "there is a third thing you must do... you must do something to make the world more beautiful." And he replies, "All right... but I do not yet know what that can be."

There's something strangely familiar to Cooney's illustrations; you may be surprised how many of your own favorite childhood books she was involved in creating over the decades.

I was delighted to discover Cooney was illustrator to another one of my beloved childhood reads, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.

Horses were my primary obsession when I was 8; I plastered my bedroom walls with drawings of them and pretended my bike was a stallion and rode it through the park. So, anything that brought horses alive for me in a visually rich manner was a dream come true, and these illustrations were especially unique and striking.

In the end, the girl who loves living with the herd of wild horses eventually turns into a horse herself. Reminds me of a story I made up myself when I was young. Perhaps it is a metaphor for my own desires at the time?

Of all her books, Barbara Cooney has said that Miss Rumphius, Hattie and the Wild Waves, and Island Boy were closest to her heart. She stated, "these three are as near as I ever will come to an autobiography".

Island Boy is set in Cooney's favorite state of Maine, (just like Edward Hopper and Edward Gorey, there must be something in the water ;) ) and in December 1996, she was the first person ever to be named a "Living Treasure" of the State of Maine by Governor Angus King. Cooney considered that to be the pinnacle of her career and life.

There are so many of her books I wish to devour now. So many look promising. I can't wait to one day read them. :)

On March 10, 2000, at the age of 83, Barbara Cooney passed away. Fortunately her legacy will live on, inspiring children and adults alike to appreciate her charming depictions, and to ponder her insightful messages for years to come. I would like to end with a quote given by Cooney herself after receiving the Caldecott medal in 1959:

"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."

If only all children's books had that objective in mind. :)



  1. oohh!! "Miss Rumphius" was one of my favorites stories when I was a kid. I've read it a thousand times! In spanish was "La señorita Emilia" I remember how much I loved the pictures! I even tried to draw like her when I was kid.
    I don't have it anymore since I'm in Spain and it was beautiful to see some images again!
    I love your blog Susan!

  2. Yay, I'm so glad, thank you Tairi! Miss Rumphius is a wonderful book. :)

  3. Miss Rumphius is one of my favorite books. You have done a superb job of writing about Barbara Cooney and her work. I learned so much about her from reading this page, and seeing all her beautiful illustrations here inspires me to want to read all of her books.

  4. Thank you for visiting, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!