Virginia Lee Burton

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Virginia Lee Burton
Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton was born in Newton Centre, Massachusetts on August 30, 1909 to Lena Dalkeith Yates, a poet and artist, and Alfred Burton, an engineer and the first dean of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a child she moved to California, and in 1925 her parents divorced. She studied art and design as well as dance at the California School of Fine Arts. Burton returned to Boston in 1928. She worked as a “sketcher” for the Boston Evening Transcript, illustrating plays and musical events. Burton met her future husband, George Demetrios, at a Boston Museum School class that he taught. Shortly after the marriage, the Demetrios family resided in the Folly Cove area of Gloucester.

The beginning of American picture book publishing began around 1924, and Burton made her mark in the field soon after. Her first published book, Choo Choo (1935), was created by using her sons, Aristides and Michael, as a test audience. She employed this very successful method to produce several renowned works, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Little House (Caldecott Medal winner), Calico the Wonder Horse, Maybelle the Cable Car, Life Story, and Katy and the Big Snow. She also created the illustrations for other books, such as Sad-Faced Boy by Arna Bontemps and The Song of Robin Hood (Caldecott Honor Book winner), stories compiled by Anne Malcolmson.

In addition to her literary work, Burton founded the textile collective Folly Cove Designers in 1938. The group reflected the past culture of the Arts and Crafts Movement, both in its union of design and production and in the formation as a cooperative guild. The linoleum block print designs for domestic items were innovative and unique, bringing recognition and accolades to the group. The group had 16 museum exhibitions as well as dealing with retailers like Lord & Taylor, F. Schumacher, Rich’s of Atlanta and Skinner Silks.

Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios was a wife running a depression era household, an engaged mother raising two sons, an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, a leader in a landmark arts and crafts textile guild —- a true Renaissance woman. She died on October 15, 1968 at the age of fifty-nine.

As an illustrator, Virginia Lee Burton is a master. The use of line and perspective to suggest emotion and movement gives a liveliness to her work. Her characters’ form and fluidity show the dancer’s awareness of body that Burton possessed. She has the ability to communicate the themes of the story not only in the illustration of the main event or in her inventive text, but also through the precise placement of the two in an intricate dance across the page. No space is wasted — even the endpapers are put to use. Burton fills the pages with details, giving a pleasure not only in the overall story, but also in repeated examination of the art.

Burton used personified machinery to bring fantasy to everyday life, allowing children to bring their imagination to the world around them. Her machine characters, Mary Anne, Katy, and Maybelle are underdogs who, with fighting spirit, overcome the odds. Calico the Wonder Horse and the Little House are also portrayed as female leads. By having both female protagonists and action-packed storylines, Burton attracts both boys and girls to her works. Children can feel a sense of empowerment and mastery in their lives through the triumphs of her heroines.

Her deep affinity to her Folly Cove home, her life as a mother of two boys and her work in textile design informed and enriched Burton’s work as a children’s book author. The love of the natural vistas of Gloucester and the community of friends, neighbors, and family are communicated in the themes in her works. Visits to construction sites or railroad stations with her sons would lead to story-telling, first to them, then to a wider audience. Her work with the Folly Cove Designers expanded and reinforced her theory of design. Her textiles reflected her story-telling abilities. Several designs are directly from her literary motifs, including the Little House, Choo Choo, Robin Hood and Life Story. The concepts contained in her books — that new isn’t always better, that loyalty and friendship are important, that progress needs to be balanced with awareness of the past, that having a safe place in the world is valuable — are artfully conveyed. They are what make Virginia Lee Burton’s books timeless, and what makes them treasures in the world of children’s literature.

Katy and the Big Snow is a story about a tractor that has a heart-shaped plow. When a large snowstorm overwhelms the city of Geoppolis, Katy plows around the town, uniting the paralyzed community. As with many of Burton’s stories, her imagination was inspired by real life events —a visit to the Gloucester Highway Department with her son and a large Boston snowstorm.

Burton echoes Gloucester in Geoppolis. Several images of the landmarks are similar to buildings in the city. Both the city hall and library depicted are very similar to those buildings in Gloucester. The city also contained a piggery, a poultry farm, a dairy, and an icehouse. While some landmarks are in approximate placement that reflects Gloucester, it is not a total replication. Nevertheless, the ambiance of the small community is captured.

Katy is a study of the use of space and line. Burton uses the white of the page to convey the snow’s effect of the community’s disconnection. As the story progresses, the plowed lines weave across the pages, threading the community back together. The text has a rhythmic quality, giving a feeling of the chugging through the snow as Katy pushes her way through the town. Katy, with her heart-shaped plow, brings love with her strength and endurance to overcome adversity in a snow weary Geoppolis world.

Many themes in Katy appear in other Burton works. Mary Anne the steam shovel has the same love of hard work. Katy is similar to Choo Choo and the Little House in having her own special place in the world. Maybelle and Katy unite their communities. Katy is an example of Virginia Lee Burton’s philosophy “Do a book well or don’t do it at all.” The thousands of children who have enjoyed Katy and the Big Snow over the years are glad she did.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS; SELF-ILLUSTRATED; PUBLISHED BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN (BOSTON)

ILLUSTRATOR; PUBLISHED BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN (BOSTON), EXCEPT AS INDICATED

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