PORTLAND — Maine has lost a living treasure. Children’s author and illustrator Barbara Cooney, whose “Miss Rumphius” made Maine more beautiful by sprinkling lupine seeds up and down the coast, died Friday at Maine Medical Center in Portland after a long illness. She was 83.
“She will be missed,” said Anne Mundy, children’s librarian at the Bangor Public Library. “Her art and her stories are just so welcoming always. They just seem to take the reader in and visually transport the reader to the setting she’s writing in.”
Never was this more true than in Cooney’s stories about Maine, her adopted state. The Damariscotta resident captured the rugged beauty of the Maine coast in “Island Boy,” “Captain Pottle’s House,” “King of Wreck Island,” and in “Miss Rumphius,” her famous tale of the lupine lady.
“I remember so many of” Cooney’s books, said Carl Little, a poet, art critic and father of two who lives in Somesville. “`Island Boy’ was one of our favorites. It’s set in the Cranberry Islands, where we spend time. And of course, the lupine lady — that was marvelous.”
So marvelous, in fact, that “Miss Rumphius” won the American Book Award and was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year in 1982. Cooney won two Caldecott Medals, given by the American Library Association for Best Illustrated Book of the Year, for her retellings of Chaucer’s “Chanticleer and the Fox” and “Ox Cart Man,” written by poet Donald Hall.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native’s contributions weren’t overlooked locally. In 1996, Gov. Angus King declared her a Living Treasure of the State of Maine and proclaimed Dec. 12 as Barbara Cooney Day. The Maine Library Association created the Lupine Award to recognize outstanding children’s books written about Maine or by Maine authors.
But Maine’s love for Cooney wasn’t one-sided. She returned it generously, giving Christmas gift of $550,000 to the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta in hopes that other people would give to their local libraries over the holiday season. She later donated $300,000 toward the construction of a new library in the village.
“I think Maine meant a lot to her, especially in later life,” Little said. “She often turned to Maine as subject matter.”
Cooney’s paintings for “Miss Rumphius,” “Island Boy” and “Hattie and the Wild Waves,” two of which were set in Maine, are on permanent loan to Bowdoin College. Cooney gave the paintings to Bowdoin because of her love for Maine and her love for the paintings — her favorites.
“Of all the books I have done, `Miss Rumphius,’ `Island Boy’ and `Hattie and the Wild Waves’ are the closest to my heart,” Cooney said. “These three are as near as I ever will come to an autobiography.”
“Hattie” tells the tale of a young girl in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Cooney was born. She grew up in Long Island, and spent summers in a cottage in Maine. As a young adult, Cooney took every art class available at Smith College, and when she graduated in 1938, she knew she wanted to be an artist. She started working at a publishing house, where “they told me I didn’t have any sense of color,” Cooney told the Bangor Daily News in a 1995 interview.
She proved the publisher wrong. Over the course of her 60-year career, Cooney published 110 books, from “Ake and His World” in 1940, to “Basket Moon,” published in September 1999.
“When you look back, she really was very productive and wide-ranging in her work,” Little said.
Cooney also had a sharp eye for detail. In “Eleanor,” she re-created Eleanor Roosevelt’s actual baptismal gown. She traveled to Boston to make sure the scenery was accurate in an alphabet poem, and to Amherst, Mass., while researching a story about Emily Dickinson.
“Her illustrations really have a sense of authenticity,” Little said. “I think she’ll go down as one of our famous illustrators.”
True to the lessons of “Miss Rumphius,” Cooney made the world a more beautiful place with her illustrations.
“Miss Rumphius, the story and the pictures, are just her to me — making the world a better place wherever she was with her stories and her pictures,” Mundy said.
Cooney is survived by her husband, Charles Talbot Porter; four children, Gretel Porter of Freeport, Barnaby Porter of Damariscotta, Charles Talbot Porter Jr. of Puerto Williams, Chile, and Phoebe Porter of Conway, Mass.; two brothers, Daniel Cooney of Darien, Conn., and David Cooney of Arlington Heights, Ill.; three grandchildren, Shetu Nanday of West Bengal, India, Samuel Goldsmith of Los Angeles, and Elijah W. Porter of Damariscotta; and one great-grandchild, Soraya Nanday of West Bengal, India.
There will be no funeral service. A private memorial service will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, Cooney’s family has asked that donations be made to the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta.