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Picture Book Author Profile

I have an article up today over at The National Writing For Children Center about teaching personification by using picture books. And as I mention in that post, Virginia Lee Burton was a master at using personification in her books. The Little House is a favorite at our house, as is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Katie and the Big Snow. The imagery in Mrs. Burton's books is beyond description, and her writing style is exceptional! She was a true icon in the picture book industry, so I thought I'd share a little bit about Virginia Lee Burton here.

She was born on August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, but her family moved to California when she was seven. When she was older, she received a scholarship to study art and dance at the California School of Fine Arts. But after about a year, she returned to Boston with her father. She had an opportunity to travel with a ballet troupe, but just before she was to leave on tour, her father broke his leg. So she stayed behind to care for him. In her own words, "that was the beginning and end of my dancing career, which was just as well, because I wasn’t very good anyway."

Luckily for us, she did pursue her art career. In the fall of 1930, at the age of twenty-one, she began taking Saturday morning drawing classes under George Demetrios at the Boston Museum School. They must have gotten along pretty well, because they were married in the spring! The couple lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts for a year, and their son Aristedes (Aris for short) was born there before they moved to Folly Cove, Gloucester (MA) in 1932. A second son, Michael, was born in 1935. Mrs. Burton lived in Folly Cove until her death in October of 1968. She was only fifty-nine years old.

Her Writing Career:

Although, she did write an unpublished manuscript entitled Jonnifer Lint, Mrs. Burton's first published book was Choo Choo, published in 1935, a story of a runaway train engine. This book set the pattern of animated machinery stories. Her second book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, was a story of a steam shovel made obsolete by newer technology. It was published in 1939 and has become a true classic.

Calico the Wonder Horse was published in 1941, but it was her 1942 book, The Little House, that really drew attention to Mrs. Burton's work. It won the Caldecott Medal in 1943 and has generally been regarded as her most famous book. She went on to write and/or illustrate quite a few more great books (listed below), and earned her reputation as one of the picture book greats!

Children’s Books Written and Illustrated:

  • Choo Choo, Houghton, 1935.

  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Houghton, 1939, Faber, 1967.

  • Calico, the Wonder Horse, Houghton, 1941.

  • The Little House, 1942, Faber, Houghton, 1968.

  • Katy and the Big Snow, Houghton, 1943.

  • Maybelle, the Cable Car, Houghton, 1952.

  • Life Story, Houghton, 1962.

Children’s Books Illustrated:

  • Bontemps, Arna, Sad-Faced Boy, 1937.

  • Bontemps, Arna and Conroy, Jack, Fast Sooner Hound, Houghton, 1942.

  • Park, Leigh, Don Coyote, 1942.

  • Malcolmson, Anne, Song of Robin Hood, Houghton, 1947. (Caldecott Honor)

  • Andersen, Hans Christian, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Houghton, 1949.

Other Work:

In addition to being a prolific writer and illustrator , Mrs. Burton (known as Jinnee to friends and family) was also a gifted textile designer. She taught classes to others who wanted to learn the art of block printing. In 1940, she established the Folly Cove Designers, a textile collective in Gloucester, Massachussetts. But to differentiate her textile work from her writing/illustrating, she signed her name Virginia Lee Demetrios.

Books/Media About Virginia Lee Burton:

A Life In Art by Barbara Elleman (Biography)

You can also find more about Virginia Lee Burton, her books, and even activities that go along with some of her books at the following links, so be sure and check them out:

Houghton Mifflin (This site has biographical info and activities)

Women Children's Book Illustrators (Great biographical info)

Past Posts
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