1983 - Children’s Books, Picture Books (Hardcover)

Miss Rumphius

Author and Illustrator: Barbara Cooney

Original Publisher: Viking (Penguin Group USA Inc.)
Current Publisher: Puffin
Digital Publisher: Not Available

Reading Level: Ages 5 & Up

Gary D. Schmidt writes:

I met Barbara Cooney only once, not long after her picture book Miss Rumphius had been published. I drove past the spires of the Second Congregational Church—visible in one of the spreads of the book—and across the Damariscotta and through town and so to her home on the river. We spent some time down by the water with her very large poodle, and she showed me the rope she used to climb down the rocks and into the water for afternoon swims. I should say that the Damariscotta is a tidal river, with a current that is not insignificant. I was impressed.

Up to the house, she showed me her studio, with brushes neatly arranged in old Dundee Marmalade jars. Her paints, her paper, the tools of her trade that brought her such joy—and which she used to bring such joy—all were arranged neatly on long tables and shelves. The house was a fairly new construction, much of it built during her work on Donald Hall’s Ox-Cart Man. The head carpenter was named Leon, and he figures as the main character of that book; she showed me the lamp she posed him at to capture the Ox-Cart Man kissing his ox on the nose, one of the most gentle and loving images of the book.

We sat beneath the beams of a great room, sunlight coming off the water and into the windows, and talked about Miss Rumphius, so much of which came out of Barbara Cooney’s own self. Alice’s grandfather in Miss Rumphius was Cooney’s great-grandfather; his parlor is that of her Brooklyn grandparents. In the library scene, the young girl is Cooney’s mother; the Edwardian lady in the background, Cooney’s grandmother. The library itself is the Lawrence Memorial Library in Pepperell, Massachusetts, where Cooney had been a trustee; the conservatory scene is from Smith College, which Cooney attended. She did meet the Bapa Raja, who gave her a shell on which was written, “You will always remain in my heart.” I saw it on her fireplace, where it is at the end of the book. Cooney traveled to Djerba, Tunisia, as did Miss Rumphius, and Miss Rumphius came home to a bedroom patterned after Cooney’s home in Pepperell. The school Miss Rumphius bicycles past is in Waldoboro, just east of Damariscotta, and the cape she is wearing is Cooney’s favorite green cape. The pillows on the penultimate spread are real, and are made from the sarong Cooney wore to meet the Bapa Raja. The boy sitting on the pillow is her grandson.

In other words, though Miss Rumphius is not Barbara Cooney, both of them moved away to travel to distant places, then came home to live by the sea and to make the world more beautiful. 

Which few of us can say that we have done. But which Barbara Cooney has done in this splendid picture book.

Like Ox-Cart Man published before this book, and her Island Boy published after this book, Miss Rumphius is about the seasons and cycles of life—and though some works of art that focus on seasons and cycle focus in a rather melancholy way on the fact of our mortality, Miss Rumphius is not melancholy, but celebratory. Young Alice begins her lessons in life with her grandfather, where she resolves that when she grows up, she will “go to faraway places” and then come back to “live beside the sea” and then—at her grandfather’s prompting—“do something to make the world more beautiful.” It almost sounds like a lovely chant, and it becomes the code of her life. 

When Alice does grow older, she works for a time in a library, reading books about faraway places. But she resolves to live her life according to the three promises she had made. “So Miss Rumphius went to a real tropical island, where people kept cockatoos and monkeys as pets,” and where she meets the Bapa Raja. She crosses mountains and jungles and deserts, and then after she hurts her back, she returns to a seaside home from which she watches the sun: “she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening.” But only after an illness—and as she is getting older—does she find what she will do to make the world more beautiful:

All that summer, Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sowing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lands. She flung handfuls of them around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them into hollows and along stone walls.

Her back no longer hurts.

And since this is indeed a book about cycles, we end with an aged Miss Rumphius, sending out the narrator of the book to do something to make the world more beautiful. The final spread here shows that narrator, along with other children, having gathered the blooming lupines, and running down the path to find just what it is that she will do.

Cooney represents this cyclical nature of life in her illustrations as well; she shows a world that itself is moving and changing. The opening illustration shows young Alice looking out upon a port—Boston, perhaps?—where she can see “the bristling masts of tall ships.” There is an iron monger and a ship’s chandler and a dining saloon and a sailmaker and an ice company all open for business. Her own grandfather carves the prows for ships. The harbor is dominated by the bristling masts, though, as well as several ships in full sail. And yet, right in the middle of the harbor, is a ship powered by steam, sailing against the wind. This first illustration shows a world that seems quite distant in time, yet it is a world that is about to change dramatically; very soon, the bristling masts will be gone.

As Alice ages, so too does the landscape around her. We see her as a child in a Victorian parlor, beneath her grandfather’s painting of a tropical island. We end with Alice, now Miss Rumphius, in another parlor, surrounded by children, underneath the same painting.  But the world has changed, and these are no longer children from a different time for the reader. Now the boats we see are lobster boats powered with diesel, and the sailing ships are recreational. As she ages and changes, so too does the world. Everything responds to change—thus the need to constantly search for the new way to make the world more beautiful.

But there is at least one more thing implicit in Miss Rumphius that readers may come to:  the refusal to accept convention as absolute. It would be a mistake to read this picture book as a vigorous feminist manifesto, certainly, yet there is here a refusal to accept the conventional as the normative. Alice does take on expected roles at first—as a woman in the Edwardian period, her employment options are limited—and she takes a job as a librarian. Outside of marriage, nothing could be more conventional for a woman. But she eventually realizes that life can be more than mere convention—and this happens when she is reminded of the paintings her grandfather used to paint, and her own promise to travel to faraway places.

Sometimes she went to the conservatory in the middle of the park. When she stepped inside on a wintry day, the warm moist air wrapped itself around her, and the sweet smell of jasmine filled her nose.
“This is almost like a tropical island,” said Miss Rumphius. “But not quite.”

It is the “not quite” that is important here. She had promised herself authentic experience, and now she sets out to find it. Against the conventions of her culture, she becomes a world traveler—and not just to the expected places. In fact, she travels to most unexpected places, where her cultural norms no longer apply. “Miss Alice Rumphius climbed tall mountains where the snow never melted. She went through jungles and across deserts. She saw lions playing and kangaroos jumping.”

And the response is fascinating: She is not the arrogant Edwardian traveler who wants to make the world over in her image. She instead revels in the places she comes to, and so the people of those worlds respond: “[E]verywhere she made friends she would never forget.” Or this, from the Bapa Raja: “Before she left, the Bapa Raja gave her a beautiful mother-of-pearl shell on which he had painted a bird of paradise and the words, ‘You will always remain in my heart.’” Openness to a new world, Cooney suggests, leads to real growth, real connection, real experience, and even love.

Does everyone understand her chosen lifestyle? No. She comes home to live by the sea and to make the world more beautiful, but the response of that world is suggested by the parade of names that she takes: “Alice” as a young girl, “Miss Rumphius” as a librarian and traveler, and then “That Crazy Old Lady” when she is spreading the lupine seeds.  But That Crazy Old Lady does this:

The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes. Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!

It is her refusal to lead a conventional life that has put Miss Rumphius in the place where she could make the world more beautiful.

The spread in which Miss Rumphius sows the lupine seeds has her in the very center, walking down toward Damariscotta. In the distance is the Damariscotta River, and at the point before the widening of the river, there is a small brown house by the water. It is Barbara Cooney’s house, where we sat one sunny afternoon and talked. The reader cannot help but link the work of Barbara Cooney, artist, to that of the fictional—sort of—Miss Rumphius, both having done the third, the most difficult thing of all.

Gary D. Schmidt is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a National Book Award Young People’s Literature Finalist in 2011 for Okay for Now. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by.

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Children’s Books, Picture Books (Hardcover) Finalists That Year:

  • Marcia Brown for Shadow
  • Karla Kuskin; Marc Simont, ill. for The Philharmonic Gets Dressed
  • Cynthia Rylant; Diane Goode, ill. For When I Was Young in the Mountains

Children’s Books, Picture Books (Hardcover) Winners That Year:

  • Barbara Cooney for Miss Rumphius
  • William Steig for Doctor De Soto

Judges That Year: Not Available

The Year in Literature: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt won the Newbery Medal.

More Information: In six decades, Cooney wrote and illustrated over 200 books for children and won the Caldecott Medal twice. Despite these staggering accomplishments she once said, "I have felt way behind technically; and what I’ve learned I have had to teach myself. To this day, I don’t consider myself a very skillful artist."

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