Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Virginia Lee Burton

I saw a wonderful documentary from Netflix this week, “Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place.” It’s a beautiful tribute to a defining picture book author, and it solved a mystery about a piece of fabric I have!

Virginia Lee Burton was the author-illustrator of the picture book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. A child really did give her the idea of turning Mary Anne into the steam plant for the Town Hall! Mike Mulligan, Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House speak of empowerment to children and nostalgia to adults. For over 60 years, children have read of friendship, loyalty, and hard work in her picture books.

Burton’s beloved Cape Ann home figured in The Little House, which won the Caldecott Medal. She and her husband moved it back away from the highway. Urbanization encroached even in the 1940s, and Burton’s book was like Carson’s Silent Spring for children. Burton pioneered in laying out the town in illustration, too.

In the DVD, Burton’s sons reminisce about their mother and the Finnish community they lived in. They talk of her discipline and passion for her work. Her test of a good story was if she could read it for a month to the same audience without them falling asleep!

Children’s book experts Anita Silvey and Andrea Pinkney both speak of Burton’s place in the evolution of picture books and the sense of place in her work. The place moves from story to story, from San Francisco to Gloucester to the universe. The story is always grounded in place. The sense of movement in her illustrations give power to the story. Her sense of style, the cadence of her language and her grasp of subjects that held children’s interest (she had three boys) catapulted her into success.

The Folly Cove designers talk of the textile business Burton started on Cape Ann. The designs looked familiar to me. On a hunch, I dug out a yard of russet printed cloth. Boys and girls, arm-in-arm, dance across it. Sure enough, Finnish Hop Folly Cove Design is printed on the selvage! I am thrilled to have this piece. I can’t wait to stretch it on a frame and hang it!

Rent this film for a real treat! Virginia Lee Burton wrote, “The future lies to some extent in the hands of the children of today.” I thought of her when I read this bumper sticker today: We are defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy. Burton’s picture books whisper about bravery and courage so today’s children will be make wise decisions in the future.


  1. The Little House means so much to me. I think it totally made me into a land conservationist!

  2. I agree, Lynne. Books are so powerful!


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