Friday, July 13, 2007

Lois Lenski

Over the course of some fifty years, from 1918 till her passing in 1974, Lois Lenski wrote and illustrated more than one hundred books in addition to illustrating another sixty or so by other authors. Not only did she write a great number of books, she wrote in a variety of styles and genres including picture books for children; historical fiction and regional stories for independent readers and young adults; poetry and verse; plays; and hymns. These days, when someone does recognize Lois Lenski as a children's author, it is not uncommon for them to only know of one part of the body of her work and be unaware of all the rest.

Lois Lenski was born in Springfield, Ohio on October 14, 1893 (the same year as Wanda Gag, one of our earlier Featured Authors) and was the fourth of five children. Her father was a Lutheran minister and her mother was a former school-teacher. When Lois was six years old, her father was called to serve a parish in the small town of Anna, Ohio. Lois Lenski describes Anna and its influence on her in her autobiography (Journey into Childhood): "Commonplace and ordinary, it had not particular beauty or grace, but soon became my own, a compound of sights and sounds and smells and buildings and people that became a part of me…"

Her childhood in Anna, Ohio combined the ambience of rural domesticity with her intense interest in reading and art which, fortunately, was encouraged by the adults surrounding her. Her father subscribed to many of the major publications of the day (Harper's, Century, Atlantic Monthly) and maintained a family library of children's books that was quite extensive for that time and place. As luck would have it, a fresco artist who was living with the Lenskis while working in her father's church encouraged Lois to pursue her interest in art. (Lenski states that basically all her work up until she was fifteen was copying illustrations from magazines and the like.)

Lenski attended Ohio State University, graduating in 1915 with a degree in Education. While majoring in education, she took some art courses and, upon graduating, decided to pursue a career in art instead of teaching. She then moved to New York and continued her arts studies at the Art Student's League from 1915 to 1920, supporting herself with various part-time jobs. Her first published work appeared in 1918 when she provided the illustrations for two Platt & Munk books: Children's Frieze Book, and Dolls from Fairy Land. It was also during this period that she took illustration classes from Arthur Covey, an established mural painter whom she would later marry.

In 1920, Lenski moved to England and attended the Westminster School of Art then spent several months in Italy. While in England, she illustrated a further three books for the publisher Bodley Head. She returned to the US in the latter part of 1921 and married her former teacher, Arthur Covey, who was by that time a widower with two children.

Over the 56 year span of her career, Lois Lenski consistently maintained a phenomenal output. There appear to be only five years (1920, 1923, 1933, 1964 and 1969) in which she did not publish at least one book. Her peak year occurred in 1930 when she released 10 books; however, there were many years in which four or five titles were published. This track record is even more impressive when one considers the nature of what she was writing and what else was going on in her life (studying abroad, becoming an instant mother of two at the time of her marriage, her own son's birth in 1929, and serious bouts of illness in the 1940's and again in the 1950's). Were she writing and illustrating only short children's stories it would be one thing, but when writing both historical fiction and regional stories, she invested significant amounts of time in on-site research. She spent weeks (and sometimes months) in the settings of the stories in order to absorb the local detail and dialect. This commitment to careful research has enabled her stories to continue to ring true.

Her illustrations for other authors would also have demanded a significant portion of her time. She illustrated books by Hugh Lofting (author of the Doctor Dolittle stories), Kenneth Grahame (of Wind in the Willows fame), Maud Hart Lovelace's popular Betsy-Tacy series, as well as that iconic American story of perseverance, The Little Engine that Could.

To summarize Lois Lenski's work by reading age, her Small family series which is pitched to very young children includes The Little Family, The Little Auto, The Little Sailboat, The Little Airplane, The Little Train, The Little Fire Engine, The Little Farm, Cowboy Small, Policeman Small, and Papa Small. She also wrote a series of books based on her grandson, Davy's Day, A Surprise for Davy, Big Little Davy, Davy and His Dog, and Davy Goes Places.

For children in kindergarten to second grade there is the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski; stories about the adventures of two young girls, all of which are still in print and which include Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

The historical fiction and regional stories are written for older children (independent readers and young adults). The earlier ones in her writing career were seven historical fiction novels, often closely fashioned on actual events, which included Phebe Fairchild, Her Book, Bound Girl of Cobble Hill, Blueberry Corners, and Indian Captive. Phebe Fairchild and Indian Captive both won Newberry Honor Medals.

Her next major body of work, also for older children, was in part motivated by a desire to extract herself from the library research necessary for her historical fiction and to get to real places and real people. Starting with Bayou Suzette, and including Strawberry Girl (the 1946 Newberry Medal Winner), Lenski wrote eighteen regional novels - stories grounded in the distinctive language and land of different parts of the US.

While Lenski was alert to the proprieties of her day and wrote accordingly, being so fact-based in her descriptions, it can be sometimes breathtaking to understand what was involved in the day-to-day life of a sharecropper in Arkansas, a "cracker" in Florida, a resident of public housing, etc. But again, I think this is part of what makes her books for older children so gripping - while they have the readability and flow of well structured fiction, the details and dialect and content make you aware that this is how it was, a gritty reality that is fascinating because it is both so near in time and so far away from much of what we see and experience today.

Today, Lois Lenski is probably best known for her regional story Strawberry Girl which was the 1946 Newberry Medal winner. As mentioned above, she wrote for all ages and, of course, her writing style differed significantly depending on the age to which she was pitching her book. In general, however, I think her writing style can be characterized by a close attention to concrete detail. This trait is, I believe, one of the reasons that, some seventeen of her books are still in print two or three generations after they were first published. Having researched Lenski more thoroughly, I am intrigued by her wide-ranging abilities and will be keeping my eyes open for someone to re-release more of her historical fiction and regional stories.

Picture Books

Cowboy Small by Lois Lenski

I Like Winter by Lois Lenski

Now It's Fall by Lois Lenski

On A Summer Day by Lois Lenski

Papa Small by Lois Lenski

Policeman Small by Lois Lenski

Spring is Here by Lois Lenski

The Easter Rabbit's Parade by Lois Lenski

The Little Airplane by Lois Lenski

The Little Fire Engine by Lois Lenski

The Little Sailboat by Lois Lenski

The Little Train by Lois Lenski

Independent Readers

Bound Girl of Cobble Hill by Lois Lenski

Indian Captive by Lois Lenski

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski

Betsy-Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski

Young Adults

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