of the Center for Children's Books:
Gone But Not Forgotten
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Virgina Lee Burton
If you go to the library in search of Virginia Lee Burton's picture books, chances are they will be checked out. And if you do find some of her titles on the shelf, they will show evidence of much use and love, since Mike Mulligan and His Steam Engine, The Little House, and Katy and the Big Snow are perennial favorites of children and the adults who read to them.
However, Burton's success as an author and illustrator was not always assured. Her first attempt to write and illustrate a children's book met with thirteen rejection slips. This led her to the decision that may help to explain her continual popularity with young readers: "from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest…" (Elleman, 23) Burton did the same with the illustrations, testing them out on her sons before including them in the story.
Out of this process, Burton hit on certain themes and design elements that still appeal to young readers some sixty years after they first appeared in print. Her first book, CHOO CHOO: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away, Burton introduces the theme most often associated with her: the bond between people and machines. In this story CHOO CHOO, a bored train engine, unloosens her coaches so she can travel faster and faster until she is rescued by her beloved engineers Jim, Oley, and Archibald. In Katy and the Big Snow, K.T., the city's biggest snowplow, rescues her human mentors as she works around the clock to clear the way for ambulances, fire trucks, and even airplanes. The notion of respect and commitment between worker and machine is most clearly expressed in the enduring classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. When gas and diesel steam shovels begin to replace the trustworthy steam shovels, Mike stands by his steam shovel, Mary Ann, and proves that newer is not necessarily better than older.
It is not only Burton's lively text ("I am tired of pulling all these heavy coaches") that imbues these various machines with personalities. By drawing on the 'natural' features of a train engine, shovel or plow, Burton endows them with myriad emotions, making them highly sympathetic to young viewers. Her Caldecott-award winning book, The Little House, is probably the best example of Burton's ability to animate a theoretically inanimate object. Through the enhancement of a house's attributes to reflect the features of a face, Burton transforms the windows into eyes, the door into a nose, and the rounded base of the front steps into a mouth. As time passes and green fields are slowly replaced with black and gray skyscrapers, Little House loses some of her grandeur and her smile. Only when a young couple, the granddaughter of the original owners and her husband, stumble upon it and decide to move it back into the country does the smile return to Little House's face. Burton's use of these features not only records Little House's reactions and emotions to the changes around her, but it also allows the young viewer to sympathize with Little House on a human level.
As new generations discover Mike and Mary Ann, the Little House, CHOO CHOO, and Katy, they discover that newer is not necessarily better than older. Burton's books, some of which have been in-print for more than half a century, seem to be a testament themselves to this theme. Like Mike and Mary Ann who "always work faster and better when someone is watching," the stories and pictures within these books ring better and clearer when shared with children.
Children's Works illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton: