‘Miss Rumphius,’ story and pictures by Barbara Cooney

My friend Sharon Gibbs recommended this book to me, and L.L. Barkat recommended it to her. I’m always up for a good picture book — one whose words and pictures work together to tell the story. This one was published in 1982 and won the American Book Award. The Lupine Award, presented by the Maine Library Association, got its name from this very book.

The fictional story — which feels real — is about the Lupine Lady, a little girl named Alice who, over the course of her life, finds a way to take her grandfather’s advice: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” That something has a lot to do with lupines.

After working as a librarian, Miss Rumphius travels the world. When she goes to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, the text says, “and there, getting off a camel, she hurt her back.” In the picture, she’s pressing her hand into her back while she rides the camel sidesaddle.

Two pages later, she is bedridden. She looks terrible. There is a cane beside her bed, a cane which we won’t see again until the end of the book, when she’s not just old but “very old.” The picture shows Miss Rumphius alone in bed with her cat and a book she is not reading. She stares straight ahead, but we’re told she notices the colorful lupines outside her window. She says, “I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.” The next sentence is, “But she was not able to.”

By my math, she’s down for an entire year: from spring, through summer, then “a hard winter.” Then spring comes again, and “Miss Rumphius was feeling much better.” That’s a long time to be in bed, girlfriend.

Even though this story is fiction, I don’t believe this narrative choice is careless. Barbara Cooney illustrates this page meticulously, and the words she chooses to describe Miss Rumphius’s state are “not very well,” as in “The next spring Miss Rumphius was not very well.” Wait, don’t you mean “not feeling very well”? Nope, that is not what Cooney says. She says, “not very well.” That’s not a feeling; that’s a diagnosis.

I started Googling, to find out if anyone else out there had questions about Miss Rumphius and her back. I found a curriculum enrichment guide that asked, “Why do you think Miss Rumphius’ back stopped hurting? (She became excited and involved in the flower project.)”

Wait, what? We’re not talking about a little twinge eased away with over-the-counter meds and tea. We’re talking a solid year in bed. If your back is hurting for that long then either a) your back needs surgery or major physical therapy, or b) something in your heart and mind and soul is “not very well.”

I don’t think it’s answer A. If it were, Miss Rumphius would be unable in the next few pages to “take walks again,” to “go up and over the hill,” to wander “over field and headlands,” and to ride a bike. The text tells us, “Her back didn’t hurt her any more at all.” That’s wonderful. The lupines she scatters are lovely.

But what do we miss when we skip ahead to the flowers?

We miss the pain of a year in bed. We miss the agony of the page before the year in bed, when Miss Rumphius buys her long-dreamt-of house by the sea and declares herself “almost perfectly happy” (italics in the text). I think her almost-happiness is about more than finding a way to fulfill her grandfather’s admonition to fill the world with beauty. I think she is lonely.

The second to last page shows Miss Rumphius in her house again. Now she is very old and needs that cane. But she is not in bed. She’s in a chair in her living room, surrounded by ten children, two cats, and a cockatoo. The children are eating tea and cookies (there was no food in the bed rest picture). Her hand rests on the head of her great-niece and namesake, Alice. Just as Miss Rumphius once sat on her grandfather’s knee “and listened to his stories of faraway places, now little Alice says, “Often she [Miss Rumphius] tells us stories of faraway places.”

On the last page little Alice is running away from the other children, her arms full of lupines. She wants to go to faraway places and then live by the sea, like her great-aunt, the Lupine Lady. Miss Rumphius passes along her grandfather’s advice of a third thing she must do: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

But, oh, Alice, there is one thing more. You must let people in. You may hurt your back or your foot or your elbow in the course of your adventures, but please, dear girl, don’t hurt your heart so badly that you are unable to move for a year. Let your home by the sea be filled with children and critters. Serve cookies and tea. Tell your stories.

 

 

Comments

  1. This is one of my favorite childrens’ books, also. I love the sweeping illustrations of the ocean and the pictures of Miss Rumphius scattering seed. I read it often when I was teaching Elementary School.
    That Ms. Barkat was right 🙂

  2. Books like this make me so glad that I am a parent and had the fun of reading Barbara Cooney’s work to my kids. This one is a special favorite, and so timely because here in Maine it’s Lupine Season! I was just wishing for my camera at one point today as I climbed a hill and came to a field, lush with lupine, that were perfectly at eye level to me.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely book here!

    • Michele, Yes, the lupines are lacing all the fields in Maine right now. So glad you were able to capture them on camera. As gorgeous as nature is, its displays are fleeting.

  3. Megan, It was such fun sharing our insights. I especially enjoyed the personal stories (and lessons) that surfaced from our observations of the text and illustrations.

    I came across an exquisite quote of hers. In one interview, Barbara said, “A picture book is like a string of beads with the illustrations being the jewels but the text is the string that holds them together.” So lovely.

    When I read this book for the first time, pondered its last sentence, “But I did not know yet what that can be.” The word “yet” spoke clearly to me, as it expresses hope and optimism to the reader who does not yet know their gifts. “Yet,” as in opportunities to make the world more beautiful are there for us. It is never too late; the sky is the limit. The process is patient with us. “Yet” removes the doubt and inserts a confidence that the beauty-making will happen.

    Oh, how the splendid the world be if we served cookies and tea and told our stories!

    P.S. A piece of trivia for you (because I know how you love delving into details).

    On December 12, 1996 Maine Governor Angus King honored Miss Cooney by declaring her a “Living Treasure of the State of Maine” and proclaimed “Barbara Cooney Day” in her honor.

    Thanks for sharing her story.

  4. Love, love, LOVE this. Thank you.