Barbara Cooney and her twin brother were born on August 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. Because her father was a stockbroker, her family lived in suburbia, which Barbara disliked. She longed for her Grandmother's home in Maine where she spent her summers. Barbara describes her mother as an amateur impressionist painter and said of the guidance she received at her hand: "She gave me all the materials I could wish for and then left me alone, didn't smother me with instruction. Not that I ever took instruction very easily. My favorite days were when I had a cold and could stay home from school and draw all day long." Never considering an art school and wanting a liberal arts education, Barbara attended Smith College where she studied art history and received her degree in 1938, a decision she was later to regret. "I have felt way behind technically," she said, because of her lack of art education, "and what I've learned I have had to teach myself. To this day, I don't consider myself a very skillful artist." Realizing that she needed to make a living at something, she decided that illustrating books was a career as good as any.
She joined the Women's Army Corps during the summer of 1942 and achieved the rank of second lieutenant, but was honorably discharged the following spring because of her marriage to Guy Murchie, Jr. and the pregnancy of her first child, Gretel. Guy and Barbara had another child, Barnaby, before they divorced in 1947. With a young family to support, Cooney resumed her career in book illustration. In 1949 She married Charles Talbot Porter, a physician, and the couple had two more children, Charles Talbot Jr. and Phoebe Ann. By this time, Cooney was illustrating several books a year and even wrote one herself now and then.
Barbara was a stickler for details and traveled extensively to support her research to places like Mexico, Finland, France, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, England, St. Lucia, and Haiti. She would study the land and light, feeling that it would help her to find the right tone and palette for her illustrations. She has also been known to live the life of her characters, changing her own hairstyle to that of her character's or inviting a family of mice or chickens into her home for an extended stay. She had strong feelings about what constitutes good writing and illustration: "How well an illustrator transfers an author's ideas to his own medium is the measure of his success as an illustrator." For her acceptance speech for the 1959 Caldecott Medal, she said, "I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting. It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand. 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp.' So should a child's. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down to—children."
Barbara Cooney illustrated more than a hundred books. During her nearly sixty year career, she illustrated the works of many distinguished writers. Her contributions have included three adaptations of Homeric hymns, classic folk tales like Snow White and Rose Red and The Little Juggler, and a number of books by well-known modern writers, such as Aldous Huxley's The Crows of Pearblossom, Sarah Orne Jewett's A White Heron, Donald Hall's Ox-Cart Man, and Jane Yolen's Letting Swift River Go. As an illustrator, she was highly regarded for her attention to accuracy and detail. Since much of her work was done for stories set in times and places far removed from her experience, "getting it right" was often a challenge. "I . . . go to great lengths to get authentic backgrounds for my illustrations," she once said. "I climbed Mount Olympus to see how things up there looked to Zeus." In the later part of her career Cooney focused on writing and illustrating more books of her own, and these were equally well-received. Miss Rumphius, for which the author won both the American Book Award and a New York Times citation in 1982, was inspired by the true story of a woman who traveled the world collecting flower seeds and came home at last to make something beautiful. Although she never considered herself a great artist, she never seriously considered doing any other type of work. She chose illustration over fine art because of her love for a good story. She also enjoyed gardening, cooking and photography.
Barbara Cooney died on 14 March, 2000 at the age of 83.