FIRST BOOKS by Kathie Johnson

Cooney & Rylant

Besides the three authors described in my last column ("Reliable Authors of Picture Books," January/February 2013), there are two more who rate special mention. The first is Barbara Cooney, who has written several books and illustrated many more. In her classic Miss Rumphius, a little girl tells her grandfather that when she grows up, she will travel far and then live by the sea. He tells her that she must do one more thing: something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up to be a librarian, then travels widely, and eventually settles by the sea. She discovers almost by chance what she can do to make the world more beautiful, and she passes the lesson along to all the children in the area. Cooney's soft, delicate illustrations are just right for the

Island Boy is a tender story of a family that settles on a New England island. The youngest boy, who raises an orphaned seagull, grows up to be a sea captain, and then returns to the island to raise his own family. Throughout the story, the generations of the family find productive, useful things to do to enhance the lives of their neighbors.

Pictures by Cooney

Besides the books Cooney has both written and illustrated herself, she has illustrated many books by other authors. I sense that she is selective about the books she chooses to illustrate, and she does a wonderful job of capturing the storyline in her pictures. Probably my favorite is Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran. In a desert-like setting, children come together to play, making a town for themselves with rocks, complete with houses, ice cream shops, stick-horses to ride, and so on. Reading the book always makes me think of my own childhood, when we laid boards everywhere as roads to travel on and built forts from tumbleweeds.

Another well-known book that Cooney illustrated is Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. This is a simple story of a New England farmer in earlier days. In the fall, he fills his ox-cart with all the things produced on his farm and makes the ten-day walk to a large market town. There, he sells everything, including the ox and cart, and buys a few things his family will need. It is a lovely tale of a productive farm, enhanced by the pictures.

Emma, by Wendy Kesselman, is the story of a 72-year-old woman who loves her simple life, but is lonely. Her family gives her a painting of her home village, but she feels it isn't quite right, so she decides to paint her own picture. Her family is at first surprised, but then pleased by what she has done. Gradually she fills her life with beautiful paintings she has done, and her loneliness

These three are only a sampling of the many books illustrated by Cooney.

Rylant for the Younger Set

The other author I commend does not do her own illustrations, but is a great favorite nevertheless. Cynthia Rylant has written three series of books that are perfect for read-alouds or for the "I Can Read" set.

The Henry and Mudge books are about a boy and his dog. Henry is desperate to have a dog, as he has no siblings and there are no kids nearby. His parents say okay, and the puppy he picks out, Mudge, grows into a large dog, so Henry feels safe walking to school with him. In the first book, Mudge gets lost, and boy and dog come to realize how much they treasure each other. Children love these books.

A second set, equally popular, is the Mr. Putter and Tabby series. An elderly man and his aging cat live comfortably together and share experiences. In Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake, Mr. Putter wants to make a lovely cake for his neighbor lady. He has to start from scratch, buying all the baking equipment and a cookbook. He learns through trial and error and finally produces a cake he can feel good about. Low-key humor pervades these books.

A third set, aimed at the same level, is about Poppleton the pig. This series features some of the silliness that kids love. In the three short chapters of the first book, Poppleton learns how to be assertive with his too-friendly neighbor, spends a day at the library, and tries to help a sick neighbor who has eaten far too much cake.

Rylant has also written two books about the West Virginia area where she grew up: When I Was Young in the Mountains and Appalachia—the Voices of Sleeping Birds. These books are informative and lyrical by turn.

Rylant for Middle Readers

Middle readers (grades 2–4) have discovered another series by Rylant that their parents also love. These are the books about the Cobble Street Cousins. Three girl cousins of about the same age are staying with their aunt for a year, while their parents are traveling the world with a ballet troupe. The girls have a fine time planning and carrying out projects and exploring their town. They gradually reveal their personalities and dreams to each other. There is an atmosphere of love and mutual respect that sets these books apart from many current books for this age level.

A second short-chapter-book series features the Lighthouse Family, made up of a dog, a cat, and two young mice. They have adventures and meet other animals, including an eagle, a turtle, and a whale. These books, too, are full of kindness and grace, with good use of language.

I believe you will find these two authors—Cynthia Rylant and Barbara Cooney—to be worth looking for. 

Kathie welcomes your questions and suggestions for topics to cover. Please contact her at

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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