Tag Archives: barbara cooney

Day 137 – Roxaboxen

“Marian called it Roxaboxen (she always knew the name of everything.) There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill – nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo – but it was a special place.” Indeed, it is a special place – and the story of “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney is a very special book. It is a lovely tribute to the joy of unstructured outdoor play and to the power of a child’s imagination to create elaborate, magical worlds of adventure out of a pile of sticks, stones, and old discarded boxes.roxaboxen

Although Marian names the place, she shares it with her sisters and their neighbors – and around this group of children an entire city eventually appears, built on the foundation of their cumulative imaginations. There is a mayor (Marian, naturally), streets are marked off with rocks, houses built out of old boxes, and little Frances marks her fence with desert glass. There is buried treasure everywhere in the form of pebbles(!) – the currency which fuels the economy of Roxaboxen. There is even a bakery next to two(!) ice cream parlors, and everyone keeps trying both kinds of ice cream, because in Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.

Everyone in Roxaboxen has a car (all you needed was a round thing for a steering wheel), but beware: if you speed, you must go to jail and stand among the cactus. For some reason, quiet little Anna May is always speeding…as though she likes going to jail. Of course, if you had a horse (a stick and bridle) you could go as fast as you wanted. There are wars on Roxaboxen, and a cemetery in case anyone dies, but the only occupant of the cemetery is a dead lizard. Sometimes, especially in winter, when the weather is bad and the children are in school, Roxaboxen is quiet…but even so, it is always there waiting.

And so it goes, from one season to the next, until one by one the inhabitants of Roxaboxen move away. But none of the children ever forget – and Roxaboxen has not forgotten them. In fact, more than fifty years later, when Frances returns to that magical hill, she sees the white stones still bordering Main Street and the desert glass still marking the location of her house…amethyst, amber and sea green.

This book has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. We love the idea of creating an entire world out of a lonely, deserted hill; it is a perfect example of the magic only children’s imaginations can work. Ms. McLerran’s prose is poetic, and Ms. Cooney’s artwork – as we have come to expect – enhances the joyful and carefree feel of the story as well as the humor. I particularly enjoyed the childlike logic that created a world where cars are subject to speed limits, but anyone with a “horse” is able to speed to their heart’s content…and yet, there is still a resident of Roxaboxen who feels compelled to drive a car and speed anyway. The accompanying picture of little Anna May standing stoically in jail among the cactuses made us all laugh out loud.

We have always enjoyed watching our girls at play in the yard, acting out stories created out of whole cloth inside their own heads and I wish we had the opportunity to see it more. It feels like unstructured play is an increasingly uncommon luxury for children. And yet, I whole heartedly believe that this kind of play is the foundation for both intellectual development and emotional resilience. The author’s note in the back of the book informs the reader that Roxaboxen is a real place (of course it is!). Ms. McLerran wrote the story with the help of her mother’s childhood manuscripts, the memories of relatives, and with letters and maps from the “city’s” former inhabitants.  This book made us all want to head out to the countryside, and let our girls run free to create a brand new magical world all their own.


Day 124 – Miss Rumphius

Another day and another wonderful storybook about wildflowers for National Wildflower Week. Barbara Cooney’s timeless classic, “Miss Rumphius”, is a modern day fable that tells the tale of how fields of lupine came to blanket the coast of Maine. Although the protagonist in Ms. Cooney’s book is fictional, like Lady Bird Johnson in yesterday’s storybook, Alice Rumphius seeks to make the world a more beautiful place through the gift of wildflowers. It is an enchanting and inspiring tale, made even more so by Ms. Cooney’s trademark old-timey illustrations which made us wish we could be inside the book with Miss Rumphius.

rumphiusWhen Alice Rumphius was a little girl, she would sit on her grandfather’s knee as he told her of faraway places, and Alice would tell him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.” “That is all very well,” he would tell her, “but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

When she grew older, Alice (“Miss Rumphius” by now) did travel to faraway places – tropical islands, tall mountains, jungles, and deserts – making friends everywhere she went. And, eventually, when her travels were through, she did settle down in a quaint little house by the sea. However, while two out of three might not be bad for some people, it is not enough for Miss Rumphius: she cannot be completely happy until she has succeeded in making the world more beautiful. She is initially at a loss, since the world is “already pretty nice”, what more can she add? Then, one fine spring day she is surprised to discover a patch of lupines that have sprouted from seeds blown from her garden at home…and inspiration strikes! She hikes along the coast spreading lupine seeds wherever she goes and next spring…there are lupines everywhere! At last she has accomplished the most difficult task of all.

We love this story. I have adored Miss Cooney’s illustrations ever since reading Oxcart Man to our oldest daughter when she was still very little, and they are used to great effect in Miss Rumphius. The charming houses of the fishing village, the tall ships docking at the harbor, the fields full of flowers, even the illustrations of Miss Rumphius’ far-flung travels – they all made us wish we were there…wherever “there” was in each picture. We were also inspired by Miss Cooney’s tale to do some wildflower planting of our own. Knowing that this book was coming up, we placed an order for two big bags of lupine seeds…and while I felt as though I may have gone a bit overboard initially, after reading the book I wish I had even more seeds to spread about. I had better get to work, too, if I want to start making the world a more beautiful place.