Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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The Lupine Lady (and other stories that cultivate hope)

January 22, 2024

K.C. Ireton

Children’s Literature for Young Cultivators is a column devoted to good books for children. We’ll look at picture books, easy readers, children’s novels, and just plain good books for children of all ages, focusing primarily on stories and poetry. My goal is to provide good books for you to read with (or give to) the children you love, books that will shape their hearts, minds, and imaginations in Godward ways.

She spent her childhood by the sea, watching the tall-masted ships sail in and out of the port. And she promised herself that someday she would travel, like those ships, to faraway places, and when she was old, she would come home to live by the sea again. 

And that is what she did. She moved far from the sea and the tang of the salt air. She traveled to tropical islands and scaled snow-covered mountains and rode camels across the desert. And then she came home to live by the sea.

She was older now, her brown hair slowly turning gray, and sometimes she was ill. One spring, she was so ill she was confined to her bed, but through her window, she could see flowers blooming, and she smiled. She had planted lupine seeds the previous summer, and now their blue and purple and rose-colored blossoms cheered her. She wanted to plant more seeds, but she could not leave her bed. 

After a hard winter, spring returned, and now she was well enough to take walks again. In a little dale on the far side of a hill near her home, she saw blue and purple and rose-colored blossoms, and she cried aloud in delight. The wind, she thought, had carried the seeds of her flowers to this lowly meadow, and perhaps the birds had helped. 

And then she smiled, an idea forming in her mind. She went home and wrote to a seed company and ordered five bushels of lupine seed. That summer, as she walked on the streets of town or along country roads or through mossy clearings and sunny dells, she scattered the seed. 

This is the story of Miss Rumphius, one of my very favorite picture books. Written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, it is a celebration of an attentive life well-lived, of small acts of kindness and goodness that purl out like ripples on a pond. And it is a story of hope so deep it becomes faith.

Lupine seeds don’t look like much. They’re small and brown and speckled and a bit wrinkled. Looking at them you’d never be able to tell that they were going to sprout into green shoots with plumes of blue and purple and rose-colored blossoms. 

But the seed companies say that if you scatter lupine seed in the summer, come next spring, those small, brown, speckled seeds will sprout and flower into blue and purple and rose-colored flowers.

And Miss Rumphius believed them. She believed that these small, brown, speckled seeds scattered over the soil would in fact turn into lupine flowers. She believed it so utterly that she carried five bushels of seed over all the hills and into all the hollows and along all the lanes on her tramps through the countryside. She believed that, come spring, those seeds were going to bloom and fill the hills and hollows and lane edges with color and fragrance. 

Why did she believe this so wholeheartedly? Why was she willing to spend the summer tramping about the countryside with her pockets filled with seed while people called her That Crazy Old Lady?

She believed it because she’d seen lupine before, because she’d planted seeds in her own yard that turned into blue and purple and rose-colored flowers, and because she’d found those blue and purple and rose-colored flowers in the dale over the hill from her house, where she hadn’t planted anything at all. 

Now, it’s possible that she ordered from an unscrupulous seed company who sold boiled seed that would not sprout. Or maybe the birds and the squirrels would eat all the seeds. Or maybe this would be the first year in the history of the world that spring failed to come: maybe gravity would fail, and the earth fall into the sun. 

Maybe. And yet Miss Rumphius was not concerned one whit. She believed that spring would come. She believed the lupine seeds would blossom into blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. She believed that these flowers she could not see, except in her imagination, would become reality.

She believed that all through the long, hard winter, though she could not see it, they were stirring into life in the earth. 

And she was right:

The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes. Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers.

Miss Rumphius is a story of hope made visible, of faith in action. It is a story of joy and generosity.

In the face of a long illness and a hard winter, it would have been easy for Miss Rumphius to give in to the temptation to despair, but she does not. She chooses joy and gratitude and wonder—for the lupine outside her window and, later, for the lupine in the dale. 

And she chooses to spread this joy, to give it away, to scatter the seeds of her joy generously, abundantly, prodigally, as an act of beauty and benediction for others to enjoy. 

This is the sort of story I want my children to live in, and the sort of hero I want them to emulate, which is why I read Miss Rumphius to them over and over and over again, and why I never tire of it. 

I want them, like Miss Rumphius, to recognize with gratitude that the world, despite its pain and heartbreak, is already a beautiful place, and I want them, also like Miss Rumphius, to make it still more beautiful. I want them to recognize, as Lancia Smith says, that “every act of beauty is a defiance of despair.” In other words, every act of beauty is an act of hope.

And I want them to cultivate such hope in the midst of a despairing world, planting their small seeds of kindness and goodness, of beauty and joy, right where they are, and trusting that God will bring their faithful efforts to flower and fruit in His good time, for the good of others, in ways that they can now only dimly imagine. 

Here are three more picture books that plant hope deeply in the soil of our children’s lives: 

My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Susan Conde Lamb

Like Miss Rumphius, Arizona loves to grow flowers and read and dream about the faraway places she will one day visit. Unlike Miss Rumphius, she never visits those faraway places. Instead, she spends her whole life in the Blue Ridge Mountains, caring for the people around her. A joyful story of a faithful life well-lived, this book never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Raven and River by Nancy White Carlstrom, illustrated by Jon Van Zyle

Though the River is still frozen and snow-covered, Raven knows that spring is coming to Fairbanks, Alaska. Van Zyle’s lush illustrations show the slow transformation of the River as winter gives way to spring, and Carlstrom’s rhythmic, sound-rich poetry is a delight to read and re-read. 

The Trellis and the Seed by Jan Karon, illustrated by Robert Gantt Steele

This little parable of a seed that turns into a vine that blossoms into beautiful flowers could easily devolve into pedantry, but Karon keeps her touch light. While adults will see the meaning of the parable immediately, children will absorb it as a story about a seed and a garden and only later make the spiritual connections. 

The featured image, “Wonders in my library,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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