Review: Miss Rumphius

The soft blooms of May remind me of one of my very favorite children’s stories, and it’s high time I shared it. If you have never happened upon Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, you are in for a treat.

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 The story of the elderly Miss Rumphius is told by her great-niece. It begins when the aged aunt was a little girl named Alice, growing up with her grandparents somewhere in coastal New England around the turn of the last century. Inspired by her grandfather’s art and storytelling, Alice is determined to travel the world and only then come home to live beside her beloved ocean.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature. The affection between the generations, the size of a child’s dreams, and a mentor’s gentle guidance are simply and beautifully illustrated in both word and brushstroke. As Alice grows up quickly into Miss Rumphius and sets out on a life of travel, the pictures take us from the cozy fireside at home to the wonders of an old-fashioned library, and then from a greenhouse garden to the marvels of exotic lands. “And everywhere she made friends she would never forget.”

Satisfied with her adventures, middle-aged Miss Rumphius retires to a little cottage by the sea. But she remembers her long-ago promise to her grandfather, and wonders how she can fulfill it. The answer is accidental, but Miss Rumphius immediately sees the possibility and embraces her opportunity to make the world more beautiful. The resolution is a delight, and in the end she passes on the charge to the narrator: her great-niece, who is also named Alice.

Like all the best children’s books, this one is as much for the adults reading it as the children hearing it. It is a stellar read-aloud for all ages, but could also serve as a mindful gift for graduates, new parents or grandparents, even newlyweds. Everyone can benefit from this book’s lovely reminder that we must all do something to make the world more beautiful.

If you liked this book… read it again with the child you love. Life gets no better than this.

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