Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Book Review: Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Winner of the American Book Award and a New York Times Best Book of the Year
The single most poignant book you can give to a child is the beautifully written and illustrated Miss Rumphius. Told through the voice of her great-niece, the story of Alice Rumphius and her quest to make the world a better place is inspirational.
As a little girl, Alice’s admiration for her grandfather is apparent as she dreams of living in faraway places and growing old by the sea, just like he did. But her grandfather presents Alice with an even greater challenge- to leave the world a more beautiful place than she found it.
And so Miss Rumphius, as Alice is now called, begins her travels across land and sea. She visits a tropical island, climbs mountains, explores the jungle, and traverses the desert. Miss Rumphius makes lifelong friends along the way and leaves an indelible mark upon everyone she encounters.
In the course of her journey, Miss Rumphius is injured and finally decides to return to her home by the sea. She scatters a few lupine seeds around the stony, infertile land – a seemingly futile attempt to make the world a better place- but her injury soon forces her to retire to bed.
Miss Rumphius spends the winter ruminating about her inability to plant more seeds, and she fears she will fail at beautifying the world before she departs it. When the spring arrives, she regains her strength and makes her way over a nearby hill. There she discovers that her seeds had spread and grown into a magnificent patch of blue, purple, and pink lupines.
Now Miss Rumphius knows what she must do. She spends the last stretch of her life spreading lupine seed along roads, around the school house, along stone walls, and everywhere she goes. The little town by the sea is soon covered with the most beautiful flowers that bloom year after year.
As the children from the town gather around an elderly Miss Rumphius, intently listening to stories about worldly travels, her great-niece promises to mimic her life. Miss Rumphius responds with a very special challenge, passed down from her own grandfather, that the little girl must make the world more beautiful along the way. And so the story ends.
It is a noteworthy accomplishment when an author delivers a powerful message in a book that young children can understand. Barbara Cooney has achieved this feat in her masterpiece Miss Rumphius. She uses simple language making this book appropriate for children as young as four. And yet the artful rendering of a woman’s life journey, the powerful message, and the legacy an aunt leaves behind are all themes appreciated by much older children.
No one with a special child in his or her life should miss the opportunity to share Miss Rumphius.. It is a remarkable book that should have a place on every child’s bookshelf for life.