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Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

A Classic Children's Picture Book

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Cover art for Miss Rumphius a classic children's picture book

Introduction to Miss Rumphius

Named a New York Times Best Book of the Year and winner of a National Book Award for Children’s Picture Books in 1983, Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius has become a classic. Little Alice Rumphius lives with her grandfather and wants to grow up to be just like him. She, too, wants to go to faraway places and live by the sea. Her grandfather tells Alice that's all very well but there is a third thing she must do: "You must do something to make the world more beautiful." Children 3 and older will enjoy their journey with Miss Rumphius as she accomplishes her first two goals and strives to find her third life purpose.
Miss Rumphius is the story of how and why Alice Rumphius who is now little and old, but has not always been that way, becomes known as the "Lupine Lady." The narrator knows this because her great-aunt, Alice Rumphius, told her the story. Alice Rumphius wanted to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps by traveling to faraway places and to settle down in a home by the sea. But would she be able to honor her grandfather’s request to "make the world more beautiful"? Alice grows up in the early 20th century and sets out to do the three things she told her grandfather she was going to do.

Alice Rumphius leaves home and works in a library in a distant city. There she is known as "Miss Rumphius." After working, many travels and making many friends, it becomes time to find her home by the sea. But she still wonders if she will ever be able to make the world a more beautiful place.

After having spent many months in bed with a bad back, one spring day Miss Rumphius is able to take walks again. She is surprised at the large patch of lupines she sees on the other side of the hill, seeded by the lupines she had planted by her house the previous summer. Now she has a wonderful idea about how to make the world a more beautiful place. At first when people see her scattering seeds all around the community, some of them call her "That Crazy Lady" but when the seeds became beautiful lupines, she became known and appreciated as the Lupine Lady.

Now a very old woman, Miss Rumphius graciously entertains her great-niece Alice and the neighborhood children with tales of faraway places. The story comes full circle as her great-niece says she wants to follow in her great-aunt’s footsteps by traveling to faraway places and then settling down in a home by the sea. Just as her grandfather challenged her, Aunt Alice tells her niece that there is one more thing she must do. She, too, must do something to make the world more beautiful.

Although the illustrations in Miss Rumphius appear to be done with watercolors, Barbara Cooney actually used acrylics and colored pencils. By making her illustrations full of activity and color, she strived to make the past come alive for children. While the Victorian-like characters are small, they do not appear insignificant in the vast landscapes and seascapes that have a translucent quality. Although the hues are soft and gentle, she captures details such as the curve of the cat’s tail, the diverse faces from her travels, and the pictures on the wall.

The Author

Barbara Cooney was born in 1917 and grew up on Long Island. Her love for Maine began at the age of 2 when her family began vacationing there and is the setting for several of her books, including much of Miss Rumphius. Graduating in 1938 from Smith College, Cooney studied lithography and etching at the Art Students League in New York.

Barbara Cooney won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration twice, first in 1958 for a version of Chaucer’s Chanticleer and the Fox, illustrated using the scratchboard technique. Her second Caldecott, in 1980, was for paintings in a primitive folk art style for Donald Hall’s Ox-Cart Man. After the second Caldecott, Cooney began to both illustrate and write her own stories. In retrospect, she referred to three of her books as the trilogy that made up what she said was close to an autobiography: Miss Rumphius (1982), Island Boy (1988), and Hattie and the Wild Waves (1990).

Barbara Cooney’s work is admired and respected because of her attention to accuracy and historical detail. In her 1959 Caldecott speech, she commented on her attention to detail: “If I put enough in my pictures, there may be something for everyone. Not all will be understood, but some will be understood now and maybe more later.” (Sources: Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site, New York Times obituary, 3/15/2000, Penguin.com: About Barbara Cooney)

My Recommendation

Although the text flows naturally and is longer than many picture books, Miss Rumphius can be enjoyed as a read-aloud for children ages 3-5 years old and older. While older children will be able to read it on their own, the story is meant to be shared and discussed. There are a number of recommended lesson plans online for use with the book such as this Miss Rumphius Grade 2-3 lesson plan. While Barbara Cooney truly made the world more beautiful through her artistry, readers young and old will be inspired by her most popular and timeless character, Miss Rumphius, to make their own contributions to the world. (The Viking Press, Penguin, 1982. ISBN: 9780670479580)

More Resources From Your Children's Books Guide Elizabeth Kennedy

Like Robert McCloskey's Maine Cadecott Winners, Miss Rumphius is a book we like to reread when we go to Maine, particularly if we visit Deer Isle in early summer, when the lupines bloom in abundance. This photo of a field of lupines in Maine and this closeup of a blue lupine in bloom will give you even more of an idea of how beautiful these flowers are. Did you know that lupine festivals are among the top flower festivals in New England? Lupines do grow outside of New England. If you and your children want to find out if they grow where you live and want to try planting some, read Growing Lupine Flowers for helpful advice.

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