Born August 6, 1917, Barbara Cooney and her twin brother were delivered in a hotel room in New York City. The twins grew up there, the children of a stockbroker father and an artist mother, who encouraged Barbara’s artistic interest. She attended Smith College, where she obtained a degree in art history. A self-described “greedy reader,” Barbara knew she wanted to illustrate books. She made the portfolio pilgrimage through the publishing houses of New York City and eventually found a job at Farrar and Rinehart. Although her portfolio was filled with vivid color images she had done at Smith, the editor told her she would be working in black-and-white. In 1940, at the time she was assigned to illustrate Bertil Malmberg’s Ake and His World, color illustration was prohibitively expensive. Although disappointed, Ms. Cooney enrolled at the Art Students’ League to study etching and lithography. She found particularly useful the notebooks of Hokusai and the books of Aubrey Beardsley.
In 1941, Farrar and Rinehart published the first book Ms. Cooney both wrote and illustrated, King of Wreck Island. Eventually, as color printing evolved, she was allowed to work in full color, opening her use of media to scratchboard, pen and ink, pen and ink with wash, casein, collage, watercolor, and acrylic. She preferred stretched silk canvases. Of her work she 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 all together.”
Barbara lived in Maine for much of her life, married to a country doctor and raising four children. Several of her books are somewhat autobiographical: Hattie and the Wild Waves, Miss Rumphius, and Island Boy. She was awarded the Caldecott Medal twice, first for Chanticleer and the Fox (TY Crowell, 1959) and then for Ox-cart Man, by Donald Hall (Viking, 1979). Miss Rumphius prompted the Maine Library Association to create its Lupine Award, recognizing outstanding children’s books by state residents. Their opening ceremony honored Barbara Cooney. Author and illustrator of more than 100 books for children, Barbara Cooney died on March 10, 2000, at the age of eighty-three.