Like many others who have retold the tale of the juggler, the American children’s book author and illustrator Barbara Cooney (1917–2000) dropped clues about her sources of inspiration. In the foreword to the first edition of 1961, she reported having been exposed to the story first on the radio in 1945. She knew that the roots of the story stretch back seven hundred years to a poem from France—her title page describes it as “an Old French legend.” When researching her project, Cooney journeyed to the Parisian library that holds the thirteenth-century manuscript with the best text and the sole illumination extant from the Middle Ages. Among other manifestations of the narrative that caught her attention, Cooney singled out the opera of French composer Jules Massenet, “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” and the short story of 1890 by Anatole France. From France’s retelling of the medieval poem, the American book artist took for her protagonist both the name Barnaby and the profession of juggler.
From these sources, Cooney, a two-time recipient of the Caldecott Medal, made a story of beauty and simplicity to entertain and edify young audiences. In it, she helps them to appreciate how they can offer their services, no matter how humble. Cooney’s gentle masterpiece has lived on from the mid-twentieth century into the present. Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to bring it back to readers once again.