Virginia Lee Burton

By: Joshua Glenn
August 30, 2010

The children’s books written and illustrated by VIRGINIA LEE BURTON (1909-68), whose father was an MIT engineer and mother an artist (who abandoned her children to foster care), are as fancifully yet precisely engineered as a cuckoo clock. She won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for The Little House, in which the sharp angles of industrial civilization creep close to, then engulf the anthropomorphized, gently rounded title character. Her best-known book is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939); Choo Choo (1937), Katy and the Big Snow (1943), and Maybelle the Cable Car (1952) also feature an anthropomorphized piece of industrial equipment — Katy is a snowplow — whose existence is threatened by larger, newer, brutal and sinister avatars of technological progress. (Was Burton steampunk? She was DIY, anyway: in 1938 she founded the Folly Cove [Gloucester, Mass.] Designers, a textile collective whose whimsical wallpaper, tablecloths, etc., are gorgeous, and highly collectible.) My favorite Burton story is the un-quaint, non-partisan yarn Calico the Wonder Horse, or the Saga of Stewy Stinker (1941), in which not a single machine (unless a stagecoach counts) appears. Reading it to my children, like my father used to read it to me, I’ve decided that Burton’s stories are themselves technologies — ones whose joints have been concealed by organic designs — which seem less crafted than grown.

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  1. Thanks for this–I love her work. The Little House has always been a source of deep nostalgia and.. I need to make up a German word for this… “Zeitschmerz.” I’ll be watching the film soon.

    The picture is full of wonderful texture too–the painting, the sword, the homemade furniture an curtains, the LPs. I have a little crush on her now, alongside (the very interesting) Margaret Wise Brown

  2. Thanks for that post. I also am fascinated with Burton (crush is not the right word in my case, and I’m a gay man anyway). My son gets an unbelievable amount of joy from Mike Mulligan. Watching his eyes light up when we get to the electric shovel page, or sharing in-jokes with him about memorized passages while we’re in the grocery store…I feel like I owe Burton a huge debt of gratitude.

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