Sunday, January 13, 2008

Virginia Lee Burton

Born August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts
Died October 15, 1968 in Massachusetts

The story of Virginia Lee Burton is in some ways a very ordinary one, but the more you contemplate it the more startling it becomes. She is remarkable both for what she did do and what she didn't do. She only wrote seven books, but six of those seven have been in print almost continuously since they were written sixty odd years ago. More than that, her writing and illustration was only a part of her career, primarily of interest to her while her two boys were young. Once they grew up, she moved on to other creative pursuits and left book writing and illustrating behind.

Virginia Lee Burton was born in Newton Centre, Massachusetts on August 30, 1909. She was born into a well established family, her father being the Dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She lived in Massachusetts for the first seven years of her life before moving with her family to California. She studied art and dance at the California School of Fine Arts.

When she was 19, she and her father returned to Boston. She was scheduled to begin a tour with a ballet company when her father broke his leg and she withdrew from the tour in order to care for him during his recovery. She returned to art school where she met and then married her art teacher, George Demetrios, a classical sculptor, in 1931.

While still pursuing her studies, she obtained a position as a sketcher of dances at the Boston Transcript. She and George moved from Boston to Folly Cove, Massachusetts in 1932 after the birth of their first child, Aristides. Her second son, Michael, was born in 1935.

When you look at her seven books, the interesting thing is how recognizable they are from one to the other and, yet, how they do not run together. In one's memory there is something distinctly different in each one that sets it apart. Four of her seven books are about heavy machinery (Train, Steam Shovel, Cable Car and Snow Plow) and another one is an inanimate structure, a house. Most of her books make distinctive use of color but a couple of them are primarily in black and white. Probably the characteristic that ties them together is her use of line for motion and energy. I suppose it was that interest in dance and the years of dance sketching that gives her pictures, with their loops and swirls, such energy.

Another interesting thing about Burton that I have noticed over the years is that it is common for a friend to own one of Burton's books that their children have loved but to be unaware of the others. Presumably this is a function of the fact that the books are all so distinctive.

Burton's approach to writing her stories was to sketch out the story first. Once she felt she had the visual narrative in place she would then review that with her sons and their friends, telling the story to go with the pictures. Once she had done this a number of times, marking their responses to variations in the narration, she would then sit down and actually write the story. The writing of the story was, to her, the most difficult and unnatural part of the process, a perception on her part which most readers would not infer from reading her books, as the telling of the tale flows smoothly with natural rhythms and cadences.

The final thing that is reasonably common across all her work is her attention to detail. Her illustrations are not an attempt at realism but there are always details buried somewhere in the pictures that either add to the story or which are just plain interesting and likely to hold the attention of a little one.

Burton's first book, Choo Choo, was published in 1935 for her four year old son Aris. Choo Choo is the story of a runaway train engine rendered in charcoal sketches. It is a good story (especially to any youngsters attracted to trains, big equipment or things that go fast), though in my opinion the least artful of her seven books.

Her second book and probably her most famous and popular, was published in 1939. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was written for her second son, Michael. This is the book that really made her name and is most loved. A later story, The Little House, was even more positively received by the critical establishment. While very popular, it can't supplant Mike Mulligan.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel tells the tale of a fellow and his steam shovel who have been overtaken by technological progress. More powerful and reliable excavators are putting them out of work. In a desperate bid to stay competitive, Mike offers a town that is seeking to have the cellar dug for their new town hall, to complete the job in a single day or there will be no cost. The twist at the end is that, in his focused effort to complete the cellar before sun-down, which he does, he forgets to leave a way to get his steam shovel Mary Anne, out.

In an afterward, Burton indicated that when she sketched out the story, she got to this point and did not have a good ending in place. Showing it to one of her young neighbors, Dick Berkenbush he suggested the resolution of the entrapped Mary Anne which has ever since given the ending the twist that has entertained both parents and children. The Boston Globe had an article a couple of years ago relating Berkenbush's recollection of this event.

Part of what gives Mike Mulligan its enduring appeal is that it embodies that quintessential American dilemma, a love of the new in tension with a respect for the past and a regret to see the familiar pass away; or, in this case, pass into the cellar.

Mike Mulligan was followed a couple of years later with Calico, The Wonder Horse or the Saga of Stewy Stinker. Calico was Burton's answer to her displeasure with the artistic quality of cartoons and their narrative blandness. An adventure story for young ones, Burton recounts how Hank and his horse Calico forestall bandits from ruining a Christmas party. Done in black and white, Burton reworked the illustrations many times before she was satisfied that she had captured the spirit of a cartoon but with the detail and graphic style that would not only hold the interest of a child but be worthwhile on their own.

The Little House tells the story of a little house in the country which, with the sprawl of a nearby city, becomes encompassed by urban life till rescued and moved back out into the country by a descendant of the original builder. Again there is the theme of rescuing our idealized past from the march of progress. The artwork in The Little House is wonderful. It is a great story to build a child's awareness of time, progress, and seasons. The Little House was the winner of the 1943 Caldecott Medal.

Katy and the Big Snow and Maybelle the Cable Car brought Burton back to her core material, animated big machines that are endlessly fascinating to small boys. The detail is especially rich in Katy and the Big Snow and Maybelle the Cable Car has a neat parallel theme of popular civic action which you would be hard pressed to find in other stories for audiences of this young age.

At this point, Burton's children were in their teens and she moved on to other artistic pursuits. She published only one further book, Life Story, The Story of Life on Our Earth from its Beginning to Now in 1962. One of Burton's characteristic techniques is to ground her stories with the specific and the local. She starts Life Story in the Paleozoic period and ends the story of the evolution of life at her home and garden in Folly Cove.

Burton also illustrated six books by others. Most notable would be her illustration of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. Perhaps most intriguing would be her illustration of Anne Malcolmson's Song of Robin Hood. Malcolmson and Grace Castagnetta set fifteen old ballads of Robin Hood to music and Burton spent three years producing meticulously detailed drawings to illustrate the ballads and music. The result is a beautiful book well suited to children with a love of language, ballads, music, or Robin Hood. It can be a great read-to for those children with a good ear and the attention span. The language in the ballads can be a little archaic but not dauntingly so. From the ballad Robin Hood and the Tanner:

"What tradesman art thou?" said jolly Robin,
"Good fellow, I prithee me show;
And also me tell in what place thou dost dwell,
For both these fain would I know."

"I am a tanner," bold Arthur replied,
"In Nottingham long have I wrought.
And if thou'lt come there, I vow and I swear
"I'll tan thy hide for naught."

In 1941 Burton co-founded a design group, The Folly Cove Designers, which was essentially an art co-op where everyone participated in making singular textile designs, all submissions being reviewed by the group. As she began spending less time on children's books she focused more and more on the Folly Cove Designers and in particular, articulating a theory of illustration and design, a project which she was still working on at the time of her death from cancer in 1968.

In Burton's work we find attention to detail, locality, and story-telling style that capture small children's interest. I suppose it took a perfectionist (she was reputed to throw away many works that her editors thought were perfectly fine end products, so that she could reach a greater level of refinement) with the skills of an artist and the passion of dancer and the sense of the stage to accomplish such an enduring repertoire.

Picture Books

Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested 1935

Sad-faced Boy by Arna Bontemps and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton 1937

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton Highly Recommended 1939

Manual of American Mountaineering by Kenneth A. Henderson and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton 1941

Calico, the Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested 1941

Fast Sooner Hound by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton 1942

Don Coyote by Leigh Park and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton 1942

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton Highly Recommended 1942

Katy and the Big Show by Virginia Lee Burton Highly Recommended 1943

Song of Robin Hood by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested 1947

The Emperor's New Clothes by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested 1949

Maybelle, the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton Recommended 1952

Life Story: The Story of Life on Our Earth from Its Beginning up to Now by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested 1962

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