19 April 2008

Revisiting the Builder of The Little House

I was always a bigger fan of the Caldecott-winning The Little House than of Virginia Lee Burton's more popular book, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. I may have been attracted to the notion of historical change that forms the storyline of The Little House, and not that impressed by Mike's poor project planning.

A long-time Oz and Ends reader alerted me to Jean Nathan's article about Burton in the May issue of Vogue magazine. I can't find that story online, and I worry that if I delve too deeply into the Style.com website it will start to smell of perfume, like the magazine. But Burton fans should look for this article in libraries.

The fashion magazine takes note of Burton because she was the head of a design cooperative named after her neighborhood of Folly Cove, on Cape Ann. Its fabrics and garments are apparently quite collectible. The article also refers to a recent film, Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place.

On biographical details, Nathan goes well beyond the biography of Burton on Houghton Mifflin's website. It reveals, for example, that after Burton's mother left her father, she and her siblings spent a long time in foster care. It's no wonder that when Burton found a place for her own family, she clung to it.

Nathan writes that all of Burton's picture books have "anthropomorphized female protagonists." I knew that Mike Mulligan's steam shovel was named Mary Anne, and that Burton also wrote about a tractor named Katy, a cable car named Maybelle, and a locomotive named Choo Choo. I didn't recall the Little House having a gender, however. But I guess she does.


Brooke said...

There's a documentary about Burton? I had no idea -- thanks for the tip!

By the way, I'd be interested to know what you have to say regarding a few of her lesser-known works:

Calico the Wonder Horse; or, the Saga of Stewy Slinker was Burton's attempt to "elevate" comic books, via what she considered to be improved storylines and art.

Her illustrations for Song of Robin Hood is her masterwork. It shows an interesting integration of text and art, and probably uses the most high-concept design of all her books.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't studied all of Burton's books, so I can't say anything about the two titles you mention.

Except that it's clear Burton's books were heavily influenced by the fact that she had sons. Those boys wanted to hear stories about steam shovels and trains and snow plows. They were reading comic books. If she'd had girls instead, Burton's work might be very different.