“You’re going to learn a lot about my mother today that not many people know about,” Barnaby Porter told a crowd of 30 people in Skidompha Public Library’s Porter Meeting Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 8. The event was a 100th birthday celebration for the late children’s book author and illustrator Barbara Cooney.
Cooney illustrated more than 110 books during a career spanning more than five decades and was a two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, an annual award for the year’s best-illustrated U.S. picture book.
Cooney grew up in Long Island, but her family spent summers in Maine when she was growing up. After marrying Dr. Charles Talbot Porter, Cooney and the family moved to Maine, where she lived in Damariscotta and Walpole.
During the hour-long celebration Tuesday afternoon, Porter shared stories of his childhood with Cooney, many of which he had written down in an effort to keep her alive.
Born on Aug. 6, 1917, Cooney’s astrological sign was Leo, which she carried with her by wearing a “treasured” lion ring, Porter said. She loved picnics and prepared spreads including treats, salads, cheese, and more that could “choke a whale,” Porter said.
Cooney was funny, playful, and “even sometimes a little crazy,” Porter said. She would play practical jokes on her four children, including short-sheeting a bed, and feed them Redi-Whip straight from the container.
“We were partially her playmates and partially her playthings,” Porter said.
Cooney took her work seriously, but always had time for family. If something came up while she was working, Cooney “never became exasperated” by the distraction, and would pick up her work right where she left off.
Cooney continued to work up until the end of her life, with her last work, “Basket Moon,” published months before she passed away. The work on the book was almost complete, except for the book’s jacket. At the request of the publisher, Porter chose one of the illustrations from inside the book and, with some modifications and a little “hocus pocus,” the illustration also became the book’s jacket.
When he showed the finished product to his mother, Porter said Cooney didn’t seem to notice the illustration wasn’t one she created.
“If she had known I tinkered with her work, she would have killed me,” Porter said.
Cooney passed away March 10, 2000.
Porter concluded the event with a reading of “The Crows of Pearblossom,” a children’s book written by Aldous Huxley with illustrations by Cooney. The story tells the life of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, the rattlesnake who continues to eat their eggs, and the wise Mr. Owl, who helps Mr. Crow find a solution.
Skidompha Library was a fitting location for the event, Porter said, as his mother not only loved libraries, but helped bankroll Skidompha’s construction. Cooney donated $850,000 to Skidompha before the $2 million project broke ground.
But it wasn’t just Cooney’s financial donations that helped Skidompha Library. It was also her vision that helped it grow to what it is today, according to library Director Pam Gormley.
“Simply put, we wouldn’t be here without her,” Gormley said.