a list of…five books about some very nice old people

Emma, story by Wendy Kesselman, pictures by Barbara Cooney

 Emma is seventy-two years old, and lives all alone except for her cat, Pumpkinseed.  Although she is quite lonely, she does love to sit outside in the sunshine listening to the woodpecker tapping at the apple tree, and she loves climbing trees as well.  She loves to watch snow falling and dream about her home in a little mountain village.  Doesn’t she sound like a lovely, poetic soul?  Emma’s family gives her a painting of her village for a birthday present.  Emma is very gracious, but…frankly… she is not terribly impressed with it.  It is not at all how she remembers it.  She decides to take up painting herself, in order to paint things the way she sees them.  Emma discovers that painting makes her happy, and in Grandma Moses fashion, Emma becomes a prolific, much-loved, artist. 

 I love the portrayal of Emma as such an interesting person, and the way her family is awakened to the artist in Emma’s soul when they did not realize that was lurking there.  Barbara Cooney is an exceptional artist, and her American Primitive style is perfect for this story.   Definitely a family favorite in our house.

The Lemonade Babysitter, story by Karen Waggoner, pictures by Dorothy Donohue

Molly is a precocious five-year-old who has had it with babysitters.  Her new plan is to accompany her mother daily to the office where she could happily spend her time sharpening pencils, washing coffee cups, licking stamps, and decorating the office walls.  Her mother has other plans.  Enter old Mr. Herbert from down the street, rumpled sweater, polka dot bow tie, tangly, bouncy eyebrows, and all.  He shows up at the door and announces that he is the new babysitter.  Molly thinks it won’t take much time at all to make him relinquish the post.  But no matter what shenanigans Molly proposes, Mr. Herbert seems unfazed.  He actually seems to enjoy waltzing with brooms and riding the kiddy train at the zoo.  As the day winds by, Molly and Mr. Herbert find that they have a number of things in common, including the fact that they miss some dear friends who do not live with them or near them anymore.  By the time Mom comes home from the office that night, a tender, satisfying friendship has begun.

 Mr. Herbert is a quirky old guy, with so much more to him than meets the eye, such a reservoir of life and kindness and patience.  Molly is fortunate to be enriched by her friendship with him.  Life is good.

Miss Rumphius, story and pictures by Barbara Cooney

 Little Alice Rumphius grew up by the sea with an artist grandfather who tells her his stories of faraway places.  Alice plans to go to faraway places, too, when she grows up, and to live beside the sea when she grows old.  “That is all very well, little Alice,” says her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”  “What is that?” asks Alice.  “You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” he says.  “All right,” says Alice.  But she does not know what that will be.  Alice does eventually travel to exotic islands and deserts, and she does find her place by the sea.   What she does to make the world more beautiful involves blue and purple and rose-colored lupines, and a bit of serendipity, and results in all the little children in the village calling this old, old lady “the Lupine Lady.”

Ahhh.  I love this story.  I love the sweep of Alice’s life, the venturing off and the return to the sea, the lovely lupines spreading across the countryside, the generations of people all doing their bit to beautify this world.  I love Barbara Cooney’s artistic illustrations — artwork truly fit for this story about beauty.  Another great favorite in our household.

Could be Worse, story and pictures by James Stevenson

Mary Ann and Louie find their grandpa to be a bit stuck-in-a-rut.  Always the same thing for breakfast.  Always with his nose stuck in the newspaper.  Always answering the same, exasperating phrase no matter what calamity strikes:  Could be worse.  Until.  One morning.  Grandpa comes to breakfast and starts the meal by saying, “Guess what!”  He then proceeds to tell Mary Ann and Louie the biggest gollywhopper of a tall tale they’ve ever heard, involving abominable snowmen, giant desert reptiles, enormous blobs of orange marmalade, squids, lobsters, an ostrich…you name it!  What do Mary Ann and Louie think of that?  You have to read it to find out!

 James Stevenson has illustrated this entire story in comic-book style frames.  He has a humorous, loose, style that matches the outrageously ridiculous story Grandpa is spinning.  Kids find this book very funny, and you will all find yourselves saying “Could be worse!” with a twinkle in your eyes in days to come when life’s little calamities spring up.  Good fun.

I Know a Lady, story by Charlotte Zolotow, pictures by James Stevenson

With only a few, perfectly-chosen words, and full-page captivating watercolor pictures, this brilliant author/illustrator team tells us a story about an old lady down the block who gives the children zinnias from her garden in the summer, waves to them in the mornings on their way to school, makes candy apples for munching by the fire on Halloween night, and even remembers the names of their dogs.  This is the old neighbor lady everyone would wish for.  The little girl down the block reflects, “I wonder what she was like when she was a little girl.  I wonder if some old lady she knew had a garden and cooked and smiled and patted dogs and fed the cats and knew her name.  If I was an old lady and she was a little girl I would love her a lot the way I do now.” 

This is a story that gently takes our breath away with the beauty of a life of creativity and kindness.  Short but very, very sweet.