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Barbara Cooney

1917-2000

American Children's Author and Illustrator
Creator of the Ox-Cart Man,
Miss Rumphius, Island Boy,
and
Hattie and the Wild Waves

BARBARA COONEY WAS BORN on August 6, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Russell and Mae Cooney. Russell was a stockbroker and Mae was a homemaker. Barbara had a twin brother and two younger brothers.

BARBARA COONEY GREW UP on Long Island. Her home was in a suburb close to New York City, where her father worked. She didn't particularly like growing up in the suburbs. She looked forward to the summers, which she spent in Maine. Her grandparents had a big house there. Barbara and her cousins would have "a picnic all summer long." "As a child, Maine summers meant everything," she recalled.

GROWING UP LOVING ART: Cooney came from a family of artists. Her great-grandfather had been an artist. He had encouraged his children and grandchildren to paint and draw. When Cooney started to draw, she was surrounded with all she needed to begin.

"That I too am an artist is largely due to the tubes of paint, brushes, paper, and other art supplies that were always available to my mother's children," she recalled. Her mother had one rule: she had to keep her brushes clean.

Cooney loved it when an illness would keep her home in bed. "My favorite days were when I had a cold and could stay home from school and draw all day long," she recalled.

BARBARA COONEY WENT TO SCHOOL at a local boarding school. She remembered that although she was thought of as a good artist, "I was truly terrible."

Cooney never thought of herself as a talented artist. "I started out ruining the wallpaper with crayons, like everybody else," she said. "Most children start this way, and most children have the souls of artists. Some of these children stubbornly keep on being children even when they have grown up. Some of these stubborn children get to be artists. I became an artist because I had access to materials, a minimum of instruction, and a stubborn nature."

Cooney went to Smith College, an all-women's school in Massachusetts. She studied many different subjects and also took art classes. She remembers that she loved color. "Most of what I did was in full color. The more color the better."

After college, Cooney tried to find a job as a book illustrator. But at that time, publishers wanted black-and-white drawings. So Cooney took classes to improve her skills.

BECOMING AN AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR: Cooney took her portfolio of pictures to publishers all over New York. In 1940, she landed her first job as an illustrator. She created drawings for a collection of short stories by a Swedish author. Next, she wrote and illustrated several books on her own. But she didn't think they were a great success.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Cooney devoted much of her time to raising a family. Somehow she also found time to illustrate many books. In 1958 she was inspired to create one of her finest books, Chanticleer and the Fox.


CHANTICLEER AND THE FOX: One day Cooney was walking by a barn at sunset. She looked inside and saw a group of beautiful chickens. She recalled that the scene looked "like a golden stage set."

She decided to feature the gorgeous birds in a book based on an old story by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was a great English writer of the 1300s. His book, the Canterbury Tales, contains many wonderful stories. One features a silly, proud rooster.

In Cooney's retelling, she tried to say in pictures what Chaucer said in words. "That people--in this case chickens--can be beautiful and loveable even when they are being ridiculous."

Cooney's beautiful drawings are true to life--the life of the Middle Ages. She did research to make sure that the plants and animals were those that existed 700 years ago. Cooney thought her audience deserved all the hard work she put in.

"I will never talk down to--or draw down to--children. Much of what I put into my pictures will never be understood. How many children will realize that every flower and grass in the book grew in Chaucer's time in England? How many children will know or care? Maybe not a single one. Still I keep piling it on. Detail after detail. Whom am I pleasing, besides myself? I don't know. Yet if I put enough in my pictures, there may be something for everyone."

Chanticleer and the Fox was a great success for Cooney. It won many important awards. Soon her publisher was offering her new assignments.

TRAVELING: Cooney's publisher asked her to do a book set in France. And he told her she could use full color. So she moved with her children to France. There, she researched, wrote, and painted. "At last, I did books wallowing in full color," she recalled delightedly. Some of these were retellings of Mother Goose tales. When she received the offer to do the tales in Spanish, she moved the family to Spain.

THE OX-CARTMAN: After several years of travel and several successful books, Cooney returned home. She settled in Maine. In 1979, she produced the illustrations for The Ox-Cart Man. The book, written by poet Donald Hall, tells the story of a New England farmer. Set in 1832, it relates his yearly journey to town. On his cart he carries all the goods his family grew or made that year. He sells them, along with the ox and cart. Then, he walks home, and the cycle begins again.


Cooney's pictures for The Ox-Cart Man are simple yet expressive. They look almost like old-fashioned American paintings. As in her other works, Cooney's pictures are full of detail. Everything about the pictures--the style of clothes, the way the countryside looks--is just like it would have looked in 1832. The book was a great success.

THE TRILOGY: Three of Cooney's most popular books are Miss Rumphius, Island Boy, and Hattie and the Wild Waves. She said these books formed "the trilogy, which is my heart." Cooney both wrote and illustrated all three books. All of them are set in Maine. And each is about her characters' love for that state.


MISS RUMPHIUS: One of Cooney's best-loved books is Miss Rumphius. Published in 1981, it tells the life story of Alice Rumphius. Readers first see Miss Rumphius as a little girl, who dreams of traveling. When she grows up, she travels all over the world. Then, she returns to her beloved Maine coast. She decides to make the world more beautiful by scattering the seeds of the lupine.

The life of Miss Rumphius is shown in pictures that glow with color. The book won many awards and has delighted readers for 20 years. For Cooney, the book was "so much my heart that I cannot see it clearly. It is many places, and all of them are part of me." Miss Rumphius was based on a real person. She was a woman who scattered flower seeds to make the country more beautiful.

ISLAND BOY: Island Boy, published in 1988, is set in the 1800s. It tells the story of Matthias, who lives on an island off the coast of Maine. Matthias grows up to love his island home. Although he goes to sea and lives as a ship's captain, he returns to his island. He raises a family there, and he dies there.

The illustrations are full of the beauty of the Maine coast. Cooney called it "my hymn to Maine." Like Miss Rumphius, it was based on the life of a man who lived years ago. Cooney always said it was her favorite book.

HATTIE AND THE WILD WAVES: In Hattie and the Wild Waves Cooney tells the story of her mother. Her mother came from a very wealthy family. But having money never meant that much to her. Instead, she dreams of becoming an artist. And she makes those dreams come true.

A LONG AND SUCCESSFUL CAREER: Over 60 years, Cooney wrote and illustrated her own books, and she illustrated books for other authors, too. By the time of her death in March 2000, she had created nearly 120 books. She is remembered for books that bring characters and settings alive for young readers. Her books continue to inspire and delight young readers and will for generations to come.

BARBARA COONEY'S HOME AND FAMILY: Cooney was married twice. Her first husband was Guy Murchie. They married in 1942 and had two children, Gretel and Barnaby. They divorced in 1947.

Cooney married her second husband, Charles Porter, in 1949. They had two children, Charles and Phoebe. Cooney raised all four of her children, and they accompanied her on her trips to Europe.


After her death, her son Barnaby remembered his remarkable mother. "In some ways, she herself remained a child in the simple and direct way she lived life. When some mice made a nest in her car, she put rubber bands around her ankles to keep them from running up her pantlegs. When we kids watched too much television, she tied the rabbit ears in a knot and cut the cord with some great big scissors."

But perhaps most of all, his mother "opened my eyes to beauty."


SOME BOOKS BY BARBARA COONEY:

As Author and Illustrator:

Chanticleer and the Fox
The Little Juggler: Adapted from an Old French Legend
Snow White and Rose Red
The Story of Christmas
Miss Rumphius
Island Boy
Hattie and the Wild Waves
Eleanor

As Illustrator:

Animal Folk Songs for Children: Traditional American Songs
Where Have You Been?
Christmas in the Barn
Mother Goose in French
Mother Goose in Spanish
Hermes, Lord of Robbers
Squawk to the Moon, Little Goose
Lexington and Concord, 1775: What Really Happened
The Ox-Cart Man
Emma
The Story of Holly and Ivy
Emily
Basket Moon

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT BARBARA COONEY:

Write: Skidompha Public Library
P.O. Box 70
Damariscotta, ME 04543

WORLD WIDE WEB SITES:

http://www.hbook.com/cooney.html
http://www.edupaperback.org.authorbios/Cooney_Barbara.html