In 1983, Barbara Cooney won the National Children’s Book Award in picture books for Miss Rumphius (sharing the lauds with William Steig, recognized for Doctor de Soto). The elegant, detailed folk art and profound theme of the gift of beauty make the story a classic. Years earlier, in 1959, when she accepted the Caldecott Award for another children’s book—Chanticleer and the Fox, based on Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale—Cooney set a heroic tone for her career as an author and illustrator:
I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting . . . . It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only things that they understand . . . a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child’s. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down—to children.
Her philosophy makes good reading for the parents, too. In our modern culture of joie de vivre and material excess, now tested by our harrowing current events, Miss Rumphius in particular is more relevant than ever. The eponymous protagonist provides a helpful model for our behavior amidst our unsettled milieu. For like many of us, Miss Rumphius seeks to live life to the fullest through true, though passing, friendships and to travel to exotic lands—that is, until she injures herself. The abrupt change in ability moves her to find a deeper, more fulfilling life’s work.
From the first page, the images and story captivate. We see a young girl in a blue coat and hat overlooking an ice-capped harbor at the wide, ship-studded sea. Our narrator tells us, “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.” The lilting alliteration and story set-up give me chills every time I read it. In two lines it captures the lovely and mysterious transformation within a single, well-lived human life.
We meet the Lupine Lady as young Alice, who lives with her artist grandfather, who “had come to America on a large sailing ship.” Our story hinges on a promise Alice makes to him. Captivated by his stories, Alice says that she, too, “will go to faraway places” and then “will live beside the sea.”
Her grandfather responds, “That is all very well, little Alice . . . but there is a third thing you must do. . . . You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” Alice agrees to the challenge, although she “did not know what that could be.”
Through each phase of her life, Alice’s name changes. When she grows up and gets a job, “people call her Miss Rumphius now.” We see her surrounded by children in a library, helping them find books. During a wintry day, however, she appears alone, walking with a muffler and hat into the “warm moist air” and “sweet smell of jasmine” in the conservatory. Apart from others, she is able to contemplate her surroundings and reminisce, perhaps, on childhood vows. The tropical plants remind her of the faraway places she has not yet seen, “so Miss Rumphius went to a real tropical island.”
She easily fulfills her first life task in stunning panels depicting the desert and icy lands—wonders that were more accessible to us in the pre-COVID-19 days. Surrounded by people in each illustration, we’re told that “everywhere she made friends she would never forget.” Miss Rumphius is privileged with the joy of communion with people who are both like and unlike herself. Despite their differing customs, they are united by some common spirit of adventure or human kindness that is never explicitly spelled out and doesn’t need to be. The Bapa Raja, king of a fishing village, even gives her a mother-of-pearl shell with the painted words, “You will always remain in my heart.”
Yet, when Miss Rumphius hurts her back getting off a camel, she leaves all her friends behind, along with possibilities for future adventures she may have had.
It’s time for her second life task: to live by the sea. The next few pictures show Miss Rumphius alone again, save a black-and-white cat. Once more, she overlooks the sea from a little house on a hill. Unlike her girlhood in the city, her grownup house sits by itself on golden hills. The narrator informs us:
Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
The next image is striking and not what you expect in a children’s book if you don’t know Cooney’s philosophy concerning children’s literature. Miss Rumphius has had a flare up of her back. She sits still in bed, gray streaks at her temples. A cane leans against her bedside table. One hand rests on a book and the other on her cat. In these images, there is a slight tension, a longing for movement or company or freedom from pain. In the center of the page, curtains blow in the window, and lupines peak up in the window frame, foreshadowing the beauty that is about to unfold.
An interior transformation
It is only through injury and a period of isolation and inactivity that Miss Rumphius’s third task presents itself to her. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is nothing she devises of her own genius, but a gift given to her that she recognizes and chooses to give to others.
Her plan to plant more lupine seeds the winter of her convalescence had been dashed on the rock of her sickness. Yet when spring comes, she finds that the wind and birds have spread the lupine seeds for her, and over her hill they bloom. They germinated right when she felt her life was on hold.
She responds to this mystical movement in her life with resounding joy, a recognition of sorts.
I had a professor who used to say, “If you see something is missing, create it,” the idea being that you may see an absence others don’t see. And if you can see it, you likely have what it takes to make that beautiful creation.
Miss Rumphius sees missing flowers. Next, she is open-armed, walking through the village scattering seeds. People watch her, but they are not with her, for “now some people called her That Crazy Old Lady.” The beautiful flowers won’t bloom until the following year, and people don’t see value in how she uses her time.
When the blue and purple and rose colored lupines do bloom, children gather them up. People wave at Miss Rumphius as she passes. Only now has she become the Lupine Lady, having done the “third, most difficult thing of all.” Now, she is known primarily for the beauty she gives to others.
This beauty draws children to Miss Rumphius. Although she never married, the book ends with her sharing her own stories of faraway places with many children at her feet. She is a spiritual mother. She passes on the primary duty of life to them: do something to make the world more beautiful.
Lessons from the Lupine Lady
Well, what can you do to make the world more beautiful? Perhaps you already know. Perhaps you don’t. Some people seem to have an awareness from a young age based on a talent or propensity of the creative gift they have to give. Others wander. Many are pushed through trials to see their lives and surroundings more clearly.
As for me, bearing and raising children is my most obvious addition of beauty to the world. Like Miss Rumphius, it has nothing to do with talent; rather, they’ve come to me naturally in marriage (and pain!), and I respond with a joyful “yes” to each one.
Yet, there are other things I feel called to in a clarion kind of way to make the world more beautiful. One is gardening. Another is writing. Writing has been a constant in my life since childhood, but the way I write has been refined by suffering and loneliness. And when I write, I feel like the picture of Miss Rumphius open-armed, scattering flowers: purely content, even though it’s work. As I spend most of my writing time on fiction, I occasionally feel like “that crazy old lady.” The flowering won’t come until my novels are finished and enjoyed by others.
I believe this is the way the creative gift happens for many: clarity following trial, then work. You don’t get the instant gratification of turning on a movie or the thrill of scaling an icy mountain. And it’s not immediately obvious to others that what you’re doing is worthwhile. The peace you experience makes it clear to you that it’s your lupines.
We are in a time of mass confusion, pain, and anger. While in Miss Rumphius, our heroine is united to others by adventures, alone through her suffering, and later in communion again through others’ reception of her gift, now we are largely united to each other through pain borne in isolation and communicated electronically. That pain will not bear fruit without a genuine, person-to-person exchange of creative gifts—the transfiguration of our pain.
Do you see something missing?
Only Miss Rumphius had the idea for lupines. She received a touch of divine or magic guidance. And then she said, “Yes.”
One of the best parts of the story I only discovered in writing this piece: Miss Rumphius is based on a real Lupine Lady named Hilda Hamlin, who secretly strew lupine seeds across Maine’s countryside. Well, it’s not so secret anymore. She surely didn’t begin by plotting for a prestigious award for a children’s book based on her work. She simply missed the flowers.