The Enduring Legacy of Children’s Books

The Atlantic

Nineteen fifty-nine was a year of soft amusements for children. Dr. Seuss’s zany Happy Birthday to You! arrived in bookstores and Mattel introduced Americans to the Barbie doll and her frozen plastic gaze. On TV, suburban comedies like Father Knows Best and Dennis the Menaceadministered doses of mild humor laced with bland moral guidance.

But the Caldecott Medal, the premier American award for picture books, registered a note of dissent. It recognized Chanticleer and the Fox, the first picture book written by a young illustrator named Barbara Cooney. Adapted from the salty Middle English of The Canterbury Tales, the book tells the story of a proud rooster, Chanticleer, who falls prey to a fox’s flattery. Just as the fox is about to devour him, the rooster turns the tables, tricks the fox into opening his mouth, and escapes. The book ends with the rooster and the fox conversing, each ruing his own foolishness and impulsiveness.

In her acceptance speech for the award, the small blond author, gesturing with her long hands, conceded the anomaly of her book. “Much of what I put into my pictures,” she admitted, “will not be understood.” But she had chosen to write it because she thought that the “children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting.” “It does not hurt them,” Cooney insisted before her audience of senior librarians and educators, to hear about the real stuff of life, about “good and evil, love and hate, life and death.” (She did not say so that evening, but she had already experienced a good bit of each.) She vowed that she would never “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Children’s books are more than just entertainment. They reflect how a society sees its young and itself. By shaping the attitudes and aspirations of children, they help shape the world those children will grow up to inherit. Barbara Cooney went on to have a long and celebrated career in American picture books. She illustrated or wrote some 100, including modern classics such as Miss Rumphius and Ox-Cart Man (which garnered her another Caldecott Medal, in 1980). Her books are still beloved, nearly two decades after her death, by readers who admire their visual charm and rich historical storytelling. But Cooney’s greatest gifts, manifest in her work from the start, are more profound. Her singular vision of young Americans and her unique ideas about how to write for them make her books more relevant to Americans today—and perhaps more necessary—than ever before.

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