Burton, Virginia Lee

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BURTON, Virginia Lee

Born 30 August 1909, Newton Center, Massachusetts; died 15 October 1968, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Alfred E. and Lena Dalkeith Yates Burton; married George Demetrios, 1931

Daughter of an English poetess and musician, Lena Dalkeith, and the first dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Virginia Burton lived in Newton Center until she was eight years old, when her family moved to California. She received one of three state scholarships to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco as a junior in high school. After a year of studying art and ballet in San Francisco, she returned to the Boston area in 1928. When her father broke a leg, Burton forfeited a contract with a traveling ballet company, and remained in the Boston area to care for him. At age twenty-one, she enrolled in a sculpture and drawing class at Boston Museum School, and married her teacher the next spring.

Burton wrote and illustrated seven books for children, published between 1924 and 1962, and illustrated several others. Convinced children were distinct from adults in their comprehension of subject matter, she nevertheless thought aesthetics should be of utmost importance for either audience. The subjects she selected were indeed appropriate for children, and several related to the industrial technology of the time. She used a train, a steam shovel, a tractor-snow plow, and a cable car, and demonstrated how these personified machines could be nonconformist and creative. Even her first unsuccessful attempt at a children's book had an inanimate character—a piece of dust, named "Jonnifer Lint." Rejected by 13 publishers, however, the story bored even her three-and-a half-year-old son.

Choo Choo; the Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away (1935), Burton's first published book, tells the adventure of a train that followed tracks not assigned to him. The hero of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) digs himself into a hole, and the story's innovative ending was provided by one of Burton's neighborhood children. Burton satisfied her son's curiosity about steam shovels by inserting a diagram of the machine with appropriate terms in the published book. The Little House (1942) describes a dwelling which becomes engulfed by the encroaching city, and is transported to the countryside. The background surroundings change over the years as the house becomes more dilapidated; it is then restored in its new location.

When Burton considered writing on the subject of snowremoval equipment, she drove to Gloucester during a snowstorm to observe and sketch. She rejected the snowblower as being too dull, and instead expanded on a tractor with a plow attached, resulting in Katy and the Big Snow (1943). Mabelle, the Cable Car (1952) is based on Burton's fond memories of the San Francisco cable car. She dedicated the book to the "People of San Francisco and Mrs. Hans Klussman," who in 1951 rallied their efforts to retain the cable car when threatened as unsafe and a public nuisance.

Burton also wrote stories about things other than inanimate objects. Calico, the Wonder Horse; or, the Saga of Stewy Slinker (1941) was motivated by her observing childrens' fascination with comic books. She concluded that it was the spellbinding story and special format which claimed their interest, and she was determined to create a children's book that would possess appealing illustrations as well as captivating content. The innovative horse in the story brings glory to his rider, Hank, and trouble to the villain. Folk humor is incorporated into the prose.

Eight years of research were necessary to complete Burton's final book, Life Story (1962). The evolution of the earth unfolds during five acts of a play, with the stage serving as the border for the illustrations. Burton's family life through the seasons at Folly Cove is woven into the last chapter.

Burton illustrated several books she did not write, including Arna Bontemps's railroad yarn, Fast Sooner Hound (1942), and Anne Malcomson's Song of Robin Hood (1947), for which Burton, after three years of research, meticulously prepared an illustration for each page. She also retold and illustrated Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes (1949), which had been read to her by her father during her childhood.

Of all Burton's works, The Little House achieved the greatest fame, for it received the Caldecott award as the most distinguished picturebook for children published during 1942. It has been translated into several languages and published in more than a dozen countries. However, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is the favorite of children.

Burton always conceived the illustrations for her books before writing the text. She made sketches, which had to be complete within themselves, as well as fitting into the whole, and arranged them on the wall of her barn studio as a "story board." She then worked on the text, relating each page precisely to the pictures until overall clarity and accurate detail were attained. Elements of design, such as rhythm and repetition, were characteristic of both her illustrations and her story. Furthermore, her humor and imagination are inherent in both the situation, such as the steam shovel at the bottom of a hole, and in the plot, such as the schemes of the villain, Stewy Slinker. Burton's training as a dancer and as an artist demanded fine form, and she incorporated these high standards in her children's books.

Other Works:

The original manuscript and sketches for Katy and the Big Snow are in the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Public Library; The Life Story in the Free Library of Philadelphia; Mabelle, the Cable Car in the San Francisco Public Library; and The Little House in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.


Burton, V. L., "Making Picture Books; Acceptance Paper," and Hogarth, G. A., "V. L. Burton, Creative Artist," in Caldecott Medal Books: 1938-1957, Miller, B., and E. Field, eds. (1957).

Reference Works:

Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books; Writing on Their Lives and Works (1972). Children and Books (1976). Illustrators of Children's Books, 1744-1945 (1947). The Junior Book of Authors (1951). SAA (1971).

Other reference:

Children's Literature Review (1976). Horn Book (1970, 1971).


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