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Barbara Cooney

Author John Cech
Air Date 6/13/2000

Barbara Cooney Transcript

This past March we lost one of the remarkable, gentle voices in modern American children’s books–the writer and artist Barbara Cooney, who died at the age of 83, after having published over a hundred books, many of them prize-winning works, all of them uniquely, beautifully and clearly her own.

She’d become an artist, as she tells it, because her mother was an artist and because she had “access to materials, a minimum of instruction, and a stubborn nature.” That stubbornness kept her going during the early years of her career, after graduating from Smith College and studying art in New York City and dragging her portfolio around to publishers offices for months before landing her first book commission in 1940. And that determination has kept her art moving and evolving over the years–in fact, after the book she’d adapted from the Chaucer story of Chanticleer and the Fox, won the Caldecott Award in 1958 for its quick, energized drawings, she remarked, “Once you succeed, change.”

Twenty years later, when she won the award again for the pictures for Donald Hall’s The Ox-Cart Man, her style had dramatically altered for this story of a farmer’s journey to market with a loaded wagon, and his return home with the few important things necessary to carry on his and his family’s life for another year. Here Miss Cooney told her part of the tale in the earth tones and simple form of something like a shaker hutch, rubbed to a priceless patina.

But Miss Cooney’s magnum Opus would be her own 1982 story, Miss Rumphius, about a strong, independent woman’s journey through life, which was based in part on the adventures of her great aunt. As a little child, “when her name was still Alice, Miss Rumphius is told by her beloved grandfather that, along with her dreams of some day travelling to distant places and living by the sea, there was a third thing she had to do: “You must do something,” he tells her, “to make the world more beautiful.” And after a life spent climbing mountains and crossing deserts, and after settling into retirement by the sea, she makes good on her word, sowing seeds for flowers, lupines, up and down the rugged coast of Maine.

It’s a fitting metaphor for Miss Cooney’s career as well–because in the often rocky, often predictable ground of so much writing and illustrating for children, she planted luminous, tender books with sure, deep roots. You can see them today, still blooming–in your local library or bookstore.

Posted in Authors, Literature