Monday, June 15, 2015

Barbara Cooney: Brooklyn Born and Maine Bound

The Illustrator Who Shows Up in the Most Unexpected Books

I'm going to toss out a few names here, all of artists currently working or artists who have worked in the field of children's book illustration.  Don't worry if you don't recognize all of them, even just a few will serve the purpose. Ready? Here we go:

Jan Brett
James E. Ransome
Chris Raschka
Bill Martin Jr.
Tasha Tudor
Eric Carle
Kadir Nelson
Quentin Blake
Beatrix Potter

Now, if you're like me, as soon as you read a familiar name you also recalled an image or multiple images of the artist's body of work.  Not for a minute would you mistake an illustration by Quentin Blake with one from Tasha Tudor, or a Jan Brett with an Eric Carle.  Each of the above illustrators has a unique and distinctive style, instantly recognizable and easily identified.  

Not the case with Barbara Cooney.

I didn't realize this at first, because when I hear the name Barbara Cooney, I immediately envision her illustrations from The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall, or from my favorite book of hers, Miss Rumphius, which she also wrote. Both of these titles were published during the latter phase of her career, The Ox-Cart Man in 1979, and Miss Rumphius in 1982.  At that point, Cooney's reputation and track record were such that she could write and illustrate the books she wanted to in exactly the manner she chose, a far cry from her situation at the beginning of her career. Back then, in the early 1940s, Cooney had repeatedly requested of her publisher that she be allowed to move from the black and white scratchboard illustration to a full, camera separated color illustration. Her requests were consistently denied. The reason? Cooney, according to her publisher, had no "color sense". Right. More likely, the publisher simply didn't want to underwrite the effort. Color cost money, and each additional color cost more money. It was also a time-consuming process, and an extremely technical one.

Cooney wasn't one to take no for an answer, and she persisted. After years of illustrating, to growing acclaim, a minimum of two books a year, Cooney finally got the go-ahead for her next book to use five colors with her scratchboard, but not on every page, only on about half. The other pages were to be largely black and white, or might include up to two colors. Cooney took it and ran with it. The end result was Chanticleer and Fox, adapted from Chaucer's  The Canterbury Tales and illustrated by Cooney.

Chanticleer and Fox was the Caldecott Medal Winner in 1959.

So much for no "color sense".

Book #20:  Chanticleer and Fox (1958).  Adapted and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. 34 pages.

Chanticleer and Fox is an adaptation of the "Nun's Priest's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as translated by Robert Mayer Lumiansky. Lumiansky graduated from the Citadel, received his Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, served in the army in World War II, and was awarded both a Bronze Star and the Croix du Guerre. A scholar, he taught in a number of universities and retired after fifty years as the Dean of the Graduate School at Tulane University. He wrote a number of books on Chaucer, Malory and their respective works.

The story of Chanticleer as told by Cooney is the story of a prideful rooster narrowly escaping certain downfall at the hands of a wily fox, a consequence of his susceptibility to the fox's extravagant flattery.

Chanticleer, the rooster, belongs to a poor widow with two young daughters. The family lives in a small cottage beside a grove in a little valley.  Chanticleer has seven wives, the most beloved by him  the Demoiselle Partlet.  Chanticleer was a fine figure of a rooster, and no there was no other that could match his ability to crow and sing.

One morning, Chanticleer awakes moaning and groaning, the result of a bad dream. He tells Partlet that he dreamed he was in extreme danger from a beast "like a hound"that roamed the yard and wanted to kill him. Partlet tells him to get a hold of himself, it's only a dream, and Chanticleer shakes it off.

But later, a fox appears and flatters Chanticleer into singing for him while closing his eyes, stretching his neck and standing on his tiptoes to make his voice stronger.  The fox takes advantage of Chanticleer's exposed position to snatch him by the throat and carry the rooster off towards the woods,  clenched firmly between his jaws.  A great uproar ensues when the others become aware of Chanticleer's plight, and run after the fox towards the woods. A terrified Chanticleer then tricks the fox into letting him go, just for a brief moment, convincing the fox to tell the crowd that their pursuit is futile. The moment fox loosens his jaw to speak, Chanticleer escapes, and flies up to a tall tree.

The fox tries to sweet talk him down, but Chanticleer, now all the wiser, isn't buying it.  Defeated, the fox leaves, and Chanticleer returns to the loving arms of his family, a day older and a great deal wiser.

Cooney often stated that she didn't create picture books for children, she created them for people, and Chanticleer is an excellent example. The language reflects the time period, retaining a certain formality.  Children may not immediately get each word or phrase, but they will be able to follow and enjoy the story through the context and the illustrations. Cooney didn't believe that children should only read about things they understand, but instead be exposed to things that stretch their imaginations and their minds. Chaucer certainly qualifies. Cooney included a myriad of details in her books believing that even if a reader didn't initially "get" everything she included, that every reader would get something of what was there, and later, returning to the story, eventually get more and more, eventually developing a fuller understanding.

Cooney's artwork in Chanticleer is brilliant. Cooney did extensive research for all her books, and for Chanticleer, she studied live chickens in a pen in her studio for models. She also utilized the New York Public Library, the Cloisters and the Pierpont Morgan Library, studying the rare illuminated manuscripts of the story's time period. The intricate details and bright colors served as inspiration for  Chanticleer's illustrations.

The Art of Children's Picture Books blog has an entry devoted to the illustrations of Chanticleer and Fox.

I still have my own copy of Chanticleer and Fox published in 1958 by Thomas Y. Crowell Co.  Fifty-seven years later, it's still a glorious book, and one to be shared.

Cooney, previously recognized for her graphic skills as an illustrator and following the the success of Chanticleer and Fox, was now in a position to expand her artistic abilities in other directions, to include charcoal, collage, watercolors and acrylics on fiber.  It was also at this point that Cooney realized the importance of place, the physical impact of place on character as well as the spiritual impact of place, the mood of the place. She began to travel widely, and her illustrations, previously focused mainly on stand-alone characters, began to incorporate place with character, stressing the inextricable relationship between the two.

Cooney eventually settled in her adopted state of Maine, living on the coast and producing books with strong New England themes, and that stress importance of intergenerational ties. It was during this period that she created my personal favorite, a book that reflects her journey as an artist and an individual, Miss Rumphius.

Book #21: Miss Rumphius (1982). Story and pictures by Barbara Cooney. 32 pages.

Little Alice Rumphius sits on her grandfather's knee and listens to tales of his youthful travels to faraway places.  She tells her grandfather that someday, she too will travel to faraway places and live by the sea, as he does now. Her grandfather tells her that her goals are all well and fine, but that there is something else she must do, a third thing, and that is to make the world more beautiful. Her grandfather is now an artist, making figureheads for ships, and that is how he makes the world more beautiful.

Alice agrees, but does not yet know how she can make the world more beautiful. She will have to discover that on her own.

Alice grows up, becomes a librarian, and travels the world far and wide. She has many adventures, and makes many friends.  One day, she hurts her back alighting from a camel.  She decides to return home, and builds her house by the sea.  She is old now, and not always in the best of health, but she is burdened by the realization that she still has not done the third thing; she has not made the world more beautiful. One day, after a harsh winter, she takes a walk and sees that the wind has taken the seeds from the lupines in her garden and now there are lupines blooming in the surrounding fields.  They are beautiful, and then and there Miss Rumphius decides that that is what she'll do.  She will plant lupines everywhere she can, and make the world more beautiful.  She has found her own way to bring beauty into the world.

Miss Rumphius buys five bushels of the very best lupine seed, and wanders all about, sowing seeds wherever she goes. Some people call her That Crazy Old Lady, but once the flowers bloom, she becomes the Lupine Lady.  Now very old, she tells her great-grandneice, another Alice, about her faraway travels and her home by the sea.  Alice says that she too, will travel and have a home by the sea.  Miss Rumphius says that that is all well and fine, but that she must do a third thing, make the world more beautiful.

Alice agrees.

Everything about this book is wonderful.  The folk art style of the illustrations, the soft colors, the intricate detail.  Cooney is at the peak of her progression as a storyteller, with not one extraneous word to be found. All Of Cooney's favorites are here, the intergenerational relationships, travel, Maine, the passing of the seasons, and the search for artistic expression, a search fulfilled for Miss Rumphius with her scattering of lupine seeds.

This is a book for children, and it is also a book for adults. We all want our lives to matter, we all want to live fully in this world, but the hows and the whens behind our desires are not always so easily found. Miss Rumphius found hers, and the hows and whens of how she found them is a story we all can benefit from knowing.

Miss Rumphius at Amazon.

 To see the progression of Barbara Cooney's art, visit the blog my vintage book collection (in blog form).  You'll be surprised at how many books and for how many authors Cooney illustrated.  My favorite is Rumer Godden's The Story of Holly and Ivy.

Barbara Cooney Papers at The University of Connecticut.

Barbara Cooney Papers at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Barbara Cooney Papers at The University of Minnesota.

Barbara Cooney (1917 - 2000) was born in Brooklyn, NY, the daughter of stockbroker Russell Schenck and artist Mae Evelyn Bossert Cooney. She had a twin brother and two other brothers.  The family was well-off financially, and Cooney spent her summers as a child with relatives in Maine.  Encouraged but never overwhelmed by her mother to pursue her artistic ambitions, Cooney drew constantly as a child. She graduated from Smith College in 1938 with a degree in Art History and a plan to become a children's book illustrator. She took several courses at The Art Student's League in NYC, and with the advent of WWII, enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (the WACs), leaving two years later due to pregnancy and her marriage to her first husband, with whom she had two children Divorced several years later, Cooney later remarried, and had another two children. She began illustrating children's books in 1940, working in the field until her death due to illness in 2000.

1 comment:

  1. I juts hung a framed copy of the cover of the book at our PEI cottage, where lupines are prolific in the roadside ditches.