The daughter of a poet and a professor, Burton begin her life outside of Boston before the family moved to California for her mother’s health. Always interested in art, she won a scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Her commute to art school was two hours by train, ferry boat and cable car. “I mention this,” she writes about her own life, “because I used those long commuting hours to train myself in making quick sketches from life and from memory of my unaware fellow passengers.” Her book Maybelle the Cable Car --- reprinted using art retrieved from the San Francisco Public Library --- is influenced by her drawings and experiences on these journeys. These commutes also gave her the practice she needed for a later job as a sketcher for a newspaper.


Burton’s son Aris, now a sculptor, provides the foreword to the 70th-anniversary edition of The Little House, which is packaged with an audio CD of the story, while Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was dedicated to her son Michael. Burton even used Michael as the model for the little boy, who helps Mike and the steam shovel (named Mary Ann) dig a cellar in one day.

With the exception of her book Calico the Wonder Horse, all of Burton’s ideas and drawings, however stylized, came from life. She illustrated her books first, substituting pictures for words whenever possible, and would only write the texts last “when I can put it off no longer.” Burton was notorious for her strong decisions involving the design and appearance of her books, whether it was the placement of the text in the pictures, the patterned endpapers she designed for many of her books, or her use of various different types of colors and mediums to convey the mood of a book. “Each new book is a new experience, not only in subject material and research, but also in learning a new medium and technique for the drawings,” she said.


What’s your favorite book by Virginia Lee Burton? Why do you think her work withstands the test of time?


Sarah A. Woodreviewer for and since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.

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