Cooney, Barbara. Island Boy. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1988.
This lovely little book was a gift to Alexis for Christmas 1991. I don’t remember how I happened to acquire this signed copy, but I am glad I did. This is a stunning book.
It is a full circle story from youth to death. It is a story of determination and a life well lived. It is a story of leaving and homecoming. This is the story of a boy of Tibbets Island, Matthais. He is kind, loving, and determined.
Matthais’ Pa began the process of taming the island. He called it Tibbets Island. He cleared the land, dug a well and built a house. When he was ready, he moved his family to the island. At that time Matthais’ family had Ma, Pa, and three children. By the time Matthais came there were six boys and six girls. Matthais was the youngest. When he was small he helped where he could. When he wasn’t helping, he was sitting under the shade of the red astrakhan apple tree, his Ma had planted. He was watching his island and dreaming of the big, wide world.
In time, he joined his siblings in the steamy winter kitchen and learned to read and write. He helped plough the fields and chop the woods. As his brothers and sisters grew up, they left the island for jobs or to marry. His brothers told him he was too young to leave home. Matthais didn’t pay attention to them. He longed to see what was beyond his island. His Uncle Albion was a ship builder. Uncle Albion built a handsome schooner, the Six Brothers. When it made its maiden voyage, Matthais served as a cabin boy. For fifteen years, he sailed on the Six Brothers. He sailed with her here and there, up and down the coast in all kinds of weather. He eventually became the master of this grand vessel. Despite the work and joy from sailing, he remembered his island and he longed to return. He decided one day to return and he did. He was determined.
He returned to the island and repaired his boyhood home. He married and lived a full life. He was clever and knew how to make a good life for himself and his family. The book ends with his death. It would be sad, but he lived a life that spoke to so many people. Many people came to pay their respects to him. His grandson, Matthais saw all those people, who came to pay their respects and he heard comments like this,
“A good man…” “A good life.”
What more can we ask? This is a wonderful book to read. It could be maudlin, but it isn’t. Matthias lived a full, useful life and it was laid before us in all its quiet glory. With this book, a meaningful discussion can be had with children about life and how we live it.
This book is worth picking up just for its luminous illustrations. It reminds me of the primitive folk art style that I have seen at Colonial Williamsburg and other museums.
The book Island Boy is a story about beginnings and endings. Barbara began her life in Room 1127 of the Bossert Hotel in Brooklyn on August 6, 1917. Her family was prosperous and they lived in the suburbs. She began summering in Maine at the age of two¹. It seems to call her back, just as it did, Matthias. She returned to Maine to a little house overlooking the sea. She died in Damariscotto, Maine in March of 2000².
It is said that these books are her most autobiographical, Miss Rumptious, Hattie and the Wild Waves, and Island Boy. Like Matthias in Island Boy, she traveled widely, but was called back to the wilds of Maine. In Miss Rumptious, a book I haven’t read, Miss Rumptious is encouraged to do something to make world more beautiful². Barbara took this to heart and her books are beautiful. She earned the Caldecott award in 1959 for Chanticleer and the Fox and again in 1980 for Ox-Cart Man. Her illustrations are detailed and sumptuous. Illustrating books may have been a way to earn a living, but it gave her the opportunity to make the world more beautiful.
You can read more about this author on these websites.