There are some kids’ book by high-falutin’ names that you read because everyone tells you to and you think, “This is so great! How witty, how ironic!” because everyone else is saying so. I won’t name names. Other books, you come across by chance, never heard of them before, try to forget them, and they just won’t let go of your soul. Maybe you read a book like this by chance at some other person’s house or a garage sale or some random place like that. You left the book there. You kept thinking about it. You came across it about a year later at the library and thought, “Hey, that’s the book I read at so-and-so’s house! What a coincidence!” You checked it out and read it again. You returned it. Again, it kept coming back to you. Later you saw a best-picture-book reading list and the book was on it. You thought, “Wow, so other people like this book, too! I’m not an idiot for thinking it’s awesome.” You checked it out again and returned it again. You found yourself thinking about it at odd times of day, and using its turns of phrase in conversation. Finally, you broke down and bought it from Amazon (or at your local bookshop, if you’re so lucky to have one). This is one way to recognize a truly profound, timeless book. And this is what happened to me with Miss Rumphius.
When Alice is little, she tells her grandfather that she wants to be just like him, and travel to far-off places and then come back to live by the sea. He says that is all well and good, but she must also do one thing to make the world a more beautiful place. “I did not yet know what that would be,” remembers Alice. The rest of the book tells her story, as she travels, comes home to live in an old white cottage overlooking the rocky sea, and finally figures out what her one thing would be. As the book ends, the cycle begins anew, with Alice’s grand-niece telling her great-aunt that she wants to be just like her—travel to far-off places, then come back to live by the sea. The elderly, frail, but still spunky Alice echoes her grandfather’s word of advice, and the book ends on a wistful, hopeful note: “But I do not yet know what that will be.” The story, the colors, the lupines—it’s all so wonderful. I always cry at the end of the book (I’m so predictable that my daughter watches my face to see how long I can hold it in). We need more Miss Rumphiuses in this world.