Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art

Overview

Virginia Lee Burton’s name may bring to mind a steam shovel and a man called Mike Mulligan, a charming little house, and a snowplow named Katy. Yet to speak only of Burton’s achievements as a picture book creator would be to paint only part of the canvas of her life. She was also a dancer, an illustrator for an early Boston newspaper, and a musician, designer, sculptor, and printmaker. Together with her husband George Demetrios, Virginia enjoyed a full life. They raised two sons, gardened and kept sheep, ...

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Overview

Virginia Lee Burton’s name may bring to mind a steam shovel and a man called Mike Mulligan, a charming little house, and a snowplow named Katy. Yet to speak only of Burton’s achievements as a picture book creator would be to paint only part of the canvas of her life. She was also a dancer, an illustrator for an early Boston newspaper, and a musician, designer, sculptor, and printmaker. Together with her husband George Demetrios, Virginia enjoyed a full life. They raised two sons, gardened and kept sheep, entertained friends, and taught art and design classes. Led by Burton, the design classes made up of local artists evolved into the Folly Cove Designers. A cooperative of sorts, this group created elaborately intricate designs of rural scenes and other natural elements, which they would carve into linoleum and print onto fabrics.
Simultaneously, Burton began her career in children’s book writing and illustration. The early success of her first books, Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Little House, as well as other books was an auspicious beginning for Burton, and the books have become classic and lasting examples of the fine art of children’s book creation.
Well-known children’s literature expert Barbara Elleman introduces the exuberant life, art, and books of Virginia Lee Burton, complemented by family photographs, illustrations, and other images of her inspiring work.

Examines the life, career, artistic style, and literary themes of the twentieth-century author and illustrator of such classic picture books as "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" and "The Little House."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Handsomely designed, printed on fine heavy stock, with generous margins, chapter headings decorated with motifs from Burton’s work, and thoughtfully placed and well-identified illustrative material, this biography of Burton…is readable and informative.” Horn Book

“…the close examination of Burton’s own work makes this a valuable contribution to the literature of children’s literature.” Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman looks at the artist close up, from her early stints as a dancer and newspaper illustrator, to the founding of Folly Cove Designers (where she was a top producer of hand-crafted textiles), to her career as a writer and illustrator of books for children. Family photos, original sketches and reproductions of Burton's manuscripts (with text recorded by a manual typewriter) personalize the offering.
Children's Literature
Although the name Virginia Lee Burton is not instantly recognizable, her illustrations from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House are well known. This colorfully illustrated biography details Burton's evolution from a textile artist to parent, then illustrator, and finally author. Hidden among all the biographical details are real gems of wisdom for future writers and illustrators. For example, Burton believed that reading drafts of her books aloud to audiences of the intended age group yielded the most candid responses to the stories. In writing Mike Mulligan, she ran into a dilemma about how to get Mary Ann, the steam shovel, out of the town hall basement. A child hearing the story proposed leaving the steam shovel in the basement and building the wall around her. Clearly, Burton took the advice. Burton, a former textile designer, was aware of placement and movement in her illustrations and received a Caldecott award for The Little House. The theme of mutual respect and admiration that permeates Burton's work is reflected in Elleman's biography as well. 2002, Houghton Mifflin Company, Ages 12 up.
— Ellie Elzerman
School Library Journal
The creator of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1942, both Houghton) played many roles during her too-brief life: dancer, artist, exacting designer and teacher, craftswoman, illustrator, shepherdess, wife, mother, and ebullient hostess. This appreciative biography portrays a gifted artist balancing a successful professional career with family responsibilities at a time when most women chose one over the other. Elleman examines Burton's early work and investigates the genesis of each of her seven picture books, from Choo Choo (1937) to the epic, carefully researched Life Story (1962, both Houghton). She shows how Burton's perfectionism shaped her art, which is characterized by organic movement, rooted in the rhythms of nature, and has "survival through change" as its constant theme. A generous selection of family photos and full-color art from Burton's published and unpublished work, laid out in a handsome, open page design, accompanies the text. Research notes, an index, and an extensive bibliography are appended. This welcome tribute to a beloved artist should be a first purchase.-Margaret A. Chang, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lavishly illustrated biography of the Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator is long on discussion of her work and short on life details. The text rather cursorily covers Burton's childhood and youth, only kicking into high gear after Burton's marriage to painter and sculptor George Demetrios and their move to Cape Ann in Massachusetts, where they established an idyllic, art-filled household. What follows is a substantial and cogent discussion of Burton's artistic contributions, emphasizing her innovative integration of design principles into both the art and the text of her children's books. One chapter is devoted to her community of textile designers, the Folly Cove Designers, which, under her demanding instruction, attracted considerable attention and acclaim in the mid-20th century. Photographs and reproductions of Burton's work, frequently in full color to illustrate its points, accompany the text. Elleman (Holiday House: The First 50 Years, 2000, etc.) clearly enjoyed a close relationship with her subject's surviving family-the book is dedicated to Burton's two sons-and the treatment of her subject is, perhaps as a consequence, chirpy to the point of gushing. "One gets the impression that a special excitement existed wherever she was-an effervescence that enlivened all she touched." Any negative events in Burton's life are either swiftly glossed over-the story of her mother's abandonment of her family or an allusion to marital strife, for instance-or entirely elided, so that the author's assertion that one of Burton's enduring themes, "survival through change," sprang from her own experiences is a little hard to credit. Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of The LittleHouse, this offering indulges in considerable cheerleading for the publisher it shares with Burton-the name of which appears rather more frequently than seems necessary-and in fulsome coverage of the enduring popularity of Burton's books. Although one might wish for a little less gushing and a little more discussion of Burton's influence on subsequent illustrators, the close examination of Burton's own work makes this a valuable contribution to the literature of children's literature. (Biography. Adult/professional)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618003426
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,450,862
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Elleman was named a Distinguished Scholar of Children's Literature by Marquette University's School of Education. The creator and editor in chief of Book Links magazine, Barbara also spent many years as a book reviewer, media specialist, and lecturer.

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