The Atlantic

What Would Miss Rumphius Do?

Barbara Cooney’s beloved stories and illustrations carry lessons for young Americans about moral courage.
Source: Illustrations © Barbara Cooney Porter*

Nineteen fifty-nine was a year of soft amusements for children. Dr. Seuss’s zany Happy Birthday to You! arrived in bookstores and Mattel introduced Americans to the Barbie doll and her frozen plastic gaze. On TV, suburban comedies like Father Knows Best and Dennis the Menace administered doses of mild humor laced with bland moral guidance.

Audio: Listen to this story. To hear more feature stories, download the Audm app for your iPhone.

But the Caldecott Medal, the premier American award for picture books, registered a note of dissent. It recognized Chanticleer and the Fox, the first picture book written by a young illustrator named Barbara Cooney. Adapted from the salty Middle English of The Canterbury Tales, the book tells the story of a proud rooster, Chanticleer, who falls prey to a fox’s flattery. Just as the fox is about to devour him, the rooster turns the tables, tricks the fox into opening his mouth, and escapes. The book ends with the rooster and the fox conversing, each ruing his own foolishness and impulsiveness.

In her acceptance speech for the award, the small blond author, gesturing with her long hands, conceded the anomaly of her book. “Much of what I put into my pictures,” she admitted, “will not be understood.” But she had chosen to write it because she thought that the “children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting.” “It does not hurt them,” Cooney insisted before her audience of senior librarians and educators, to hear about the real stuff of life, about “good and evil, love and hate, life and death.” (She did not say so that evening, but she had already experienced a good bit of each.) She vowed that she would never “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Children’s books are more than just entertainment. They reflect how a society sees its young and itself. By shaping the attitudes and aspirations of children, they help shape the world those children will grow up to inherit. Barbara Cooney went on to have a long and celebrated career in American picture books. She illustrated or wrote , including modern classics such as and (which garnered her another Caldecott Medal, in 1980). Her books are still beloved, nearly two decades after her

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min read
Living In California Is Living On The Edge
For residents, the recent earthquakes are a reminder that the state is always poised on the brink of disaster.
The Atlantic3 min read
Qatar Responds: Don’t Cancel the 2022 World Cup
The tournament’s host country pushes back on Franklin Foer’s proposal that FIFA change course and reallocate funds to women’s soccer.
The Atlantic6 min read
Malta’s Fledgling Movement for Abortion Rights
The country is the only one in Europe that outright bans abortion, but public perception is slowly shifting.