The December 2017 issue of The Atlantic features Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s lovely, timely essay on Barbara Cooney and her illustrated children’s books . Cooney’s 1979 Caldecott-winning Ox-Cart Man, with its tender depictions of the countryside’s cycles of growth and loss was a favorite when our household had young ones to read to. Perl-Rosenthal writes of Cooney’s transformation of Donald Hall’s text into a “meditation of love and loss,” which seems to me a perfect way to describe its impact and importance.
He opens his essay, though, discussing Cooney’s first picture book, Chanticleer and the Fox (1958), her first Caldecott winner and a work that stands in marked contrast to the usual late-50’s fare “of mild humor laced with bland moral guidance” targeting American children. After reminding his audience that Chanticleer is based on the “salty Middle English of The Canterbury Tales” and recounting the narrative Cooney adapted from Chaucer’s beast fable, Perl-Rosenthal goes on to provide Cooney’s perspective on her little book:
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 vowed that she would never “talk down to–or draw down to–children.
We can see her refusal to condescend to young audiences in the book’s visual layout. Though clearly a picture book, Chanticleer and the Fox balances the images with significant blocks of text. This is not an oversimplified redaction of Chaucer’s text. And neither the story nor the pictures rely on the comic silliness of talking chickens to create its appeal to children. Instead, it imagines a world of quiet duties, a place where, sometimes, the best of us make foolish mistakes. If we’re lucky, friends and family will overlook our flaws and come to our rescue.
With its generous text from a canonical source, this picture book imagines itself as a book adults can read to pre-schoolers as well as a book that young readers can approach and engage with by themselves, finding new delights and new lessons in book designed to mature with its readers.
It was good to be reminded of this little book’s virtues by Perl-Rosenthal.