What Would Miss Rumphius Do?

Sunday, 12 November 2017, 12:15:42 AM. Barbara Cooney’s beloved stories and illustrations carry lessons for young Americans about moral courage.
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...Read more
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