Virginia Lee Burton
(1909–1968)
Though she was not a prolific illustrator, Virginia Lee Burton has produced some of today’s most memorable books included in libraries across the country.

Childhood

On August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, a little girl was born to Alfred E. Burton and Lena Dalkeith Yates. Alfred was the first dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until the family moved to California when Burton was seven.

Education

Burton received a scholarship to study art and dance at the California School of Fine Arts. In 1928, Burton and her father returned to Massachusetts.  She was about to leave on tour with a ballet company when her father was injured. Instead, she stayed behind to take care of him and returned to school. She attended Saturday morning classes at the Boston Museum School, where she studied under George Demetrios. They married a few months later on March 28, 1931.

Professional Career

Between 1928 and 1931, Burton sketched for the music, dance, and theater sections of the Boston Transcript. After each performance, she would sketch the actors and performers from memory, staying up all night to meet the deadline for the next day’s paper. She also worked briefly for The Bostonian.

Burton and Demetrios lived in Boston for a year before they moved to Folly Cove near Gloucester, Massachusetts. The couple had two boys, Aristides and Michael, and in them Burton found her inspiration. She began by writing and illustrating books that she thought they would enjoy. Thirteen publishers rejected her first manuscript entitled Jonnifer Lint, a story of a dust particle. She finally decided to give up on that story after her three-year old son fell asleep on her lap while reading it to him. From that point on, she took her cue from her children, soliciting their advice and that of their friends.

Her first published book was Choo Choo, published in 1935, a story of a runaway train engine. This book set the pattern of animated machinery stories, which is undoubtedly what caught the interest of her young boys. Her second book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a story of a steam shovel made obsolete by newer technology, has become a classic. With this book, she started to use double-page spreads and placing the text is shaped areas. 

Calico, the Wonder Horse, published in 1941, was a departure for Burton. In an effort to sway her sons away from comic books, she designed this book to have a similar feel. Originally published in eight colors, it was reprinted in 1950 in black and white.

In 1943, Burton won the Caldecott Medal for her book, The Little House, generally regarded as her best work, and in 1948, Song of Robin Hood was a Caldecott Honor book. But soon her interest in children’s books faded as her children grew older. Maybelle, The Cable Car was written in memory of her own childhood in San Francisco. The book was credited with helping to preserve the cable cars, and in 1967, Burton gifted the San Francisco Public Library with the original illustrations from the book. In 1959, she was awarded the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, given annually to the book title worthy of sitting on the shelf with Alice in Wonderland, for The Little House.

In 1941, Burton founded a design group called The Folly Cove Designers, made up of students from her first design class. At first, they were just concerned with designing block-prints to be used on textiles in their own homes but later, the group became an arts & crafts cooperative producing textile designs for retail. Burton believed that to insure individuality and quality, the designer and producer should be one and the same. The group’s hand block-printed fabrics for drapery and table linens were extremely popular during the 50’s when they were retailed nationally. The group also maintained a shop in Folly Cove where they marketed their wares.

Her theories, which became known as the ‘Folly Cove Design’, are based on the interaction of the subject in contrasting sizes and tones. She worked for many years on a book based on her Folly Cove Design principles called Design—And How! Unfortunately, she never felt that the book was ready for a publisher. 

Burton talked of doing a book on constructing a house, and another using a Japanese background after a trip to Japan in 1964. But she was in poor health the last five years of her life. Burton died on October 15, 1968 of lung cancer at the age of fifty-nine.

Influences, Style & Technique

“My subject matter, with a few exceptions such as Calico, I draw directly from life, and I literally draw my books first and write down the text after. . . . I pin the sketched pages in sequences on the walls of my studio so I can see the book as a whole. Then I make a rough dummy and then final drawings, and at last when I can put it off no longer, I type out the text and paste it in the dummy.”
Today, it is unheard of to wait until the artwork is done before giving the text any consideration yet Burton was praised for the design of her books and how well the text integrated with the art. 

I find a similar design sensibility to that of Wanda Gág: the flowing landscapes, the double page spreads and the circular nature of her drawing. To Burton, drawing must have seemed like an extension of dance, capturing motion on paper. She enjoyed using scratchboard as a way to quickly test her design principles.

Raison d’Être

While it seems that Burton was destined to be an artist, it is clearly her children that fueled the fire for her children’s books. Consulting with her sons and their friends must have been part of her success, yet Dorothy Lathrop has said that she never consulted with children (although she was childless and maybe would have thought differently if she had had children).

Children’s Books Written and Illustrated

  • Choo Choo, Houghton, 1935.

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  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Houghton, 1939, Faber, 1967.

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  • Calico, the Wonder Horse, Houghton, 1941.

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  • The Little House, 1942, Faber, Houghton, 1968.

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  • Katy and the Big Snow, Houghton, 1943.

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  • Maybelle, the Cable Car, Houghton, 1952.

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  • Life Story, Houghton, 1962.
Children’s Books Illustrated
  • Bontemps, Arna, Sad-Faced Boy, 1937.

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  • Bontemps, Arna and Conroy, Jack, Fast Sooner Hound, Houghton, 1942.

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  • Park, Leigh, Don Coyote, 1942.

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  • Malcolmson, Anne, Song of Robin Hood, Houghton, 1947.

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  • Andersen, Hans Christian, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Houghton, 1949.


The Folly Cove Designers & Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton Biography and Gallery at the University of Oregon
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Mike Mulligan's 60th Anniversary
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Choo Choo, Houghton,
1935.
Mike Mulligan and his
Steam Shovel, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1939.
Calico, the Wonder Horse,
Houghton, 1941.
The Little House, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
Bontemps, Arna and
Conroy, Jack, The Fast
Sooner Hound, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
Katy and the Big Snow,
Boston, Houghton Mifflin,
1943.
Anderson, Hans Christian,
The Emperor's New
Clothes, Boston, Houghton
Mifflin, 1949.
Life Story, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Life Story, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Maybelle The Cable Car, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1952.
Sources
Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to The Beast Within, New York, Macmillan, 1976.
Commire, Ann, Something About the Author, Volume 2, Detroit, Gale Research, 1971.
Hoffman, Miriam and Eva Samuels, Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books, New York and London, R.R. Bowker co., 1972.
Hedblad, Alan, Something About the Author, Volume 100, Detroit, London, Gale, 1999.
Miller, Bertha and Elinor Whitney Field, Caldecott Medal Books: 1938-1957, Boston, Horn Book, 1957.
Miller, Bertha and et al., Illustrators of Children's Books 1946–1956, Boston, Horn Book, 1958.
© 2000–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August, 2002.

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