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Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art

Interview with Barbara Elleman

Q) What first interested you in writing a biography of Virginia Lee Burton?

A) Illustration has long been an interest of mine, and writing about Burton gave me the opportunity to examine her artistic style in an intense way; it intrigued me that, although she died more than thirty years ago, her books have continued to be popular with children and revered by adults. I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about her life and work and to bring my findings to the attention of readers.

Q) Virginia Lee Burton's sons, Aris and Michael, gave you unlimited access to her art studio, and you've written that the "bounty" you found there "illuminated your appreciation of Burton's energetic life and distinctive work." Did something in particular in her studio stand out?

A) Finding the original art piece she used as a basis for her illustration of the character Slumber in Arna Bontemps's Sad-Faced Boy was very exhilarating, especially as I had found in my research where Burton verbally described her work on that book. Being able to link word and image was highly satisfying, and I knew it would be a special heretofore-unknown piece of her art to put in the completed book.

Q) What was the most surprising aspect about Virginia Lee Burton's life that you discovered while conducting your research?

A) Learning about her leadership and participation in the Folly Cove Designers. I was completely unaware of this once nationally known textile collective, which I found had been written up in Life magazine, whose works had been exhibited in dozens of museums and had been displayed in Lord & Taylor's windows on Fifth Avenue, and had then disappeared in the annals of time. I wanted those who knew only her illustration work to know this aspect of her life as well.

Q) You've written that finding anyone to be critical of VLB was virtually impossible. Having researched her life's work thoroughly, why do you think this was so?

A) From what I read and the people I talked to, Virginia Lee Burton had an unaffected way with people, a wonderful sense of fun, a belief in everyone's innate artistic ability, and, especially, a simple joy in life, all of which combined naturally to infect everyone she came in contact with. I wish I had been one of them.

Q) Can you share an anecdote — funny or frustrating or both — from your time conducting research?

A) I found an old newspaper clipping showing a house being moved across Manhattan; juxtaposed was a similar image from Burton's The Little House. For clarity, I set about trying to get a print of the original photo from UPI. I called the New York office and was given a number to call in Washington, D.C.; there I was told to call New York — at a different number; the person there said to call a company in Chicago that now handled old UPI photos. There I was told that the photo I wanted was an "inconsequential image" and not on-line; the original was in the process of being stored for posterity in a mine in Pennsylvania and hence not available. Frustrating to say the least! The image in the book is from the old newspaper clipping.

Q) What do you feel is the appealing quality of Virginia Lee Burton's work, and why is it still relevant to parents and children today?

A) I think the "hero" aspect in her work appeals to children, as well as to their natural tendency to root for the underdog — Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne's determination to dig the basement in just one day, Katy's determination to clear Geoppolis's snow piles after a blizzard, Maybelle's "no hill too steep, no load too heavy" philosophy, and the Little House's endurance through a miserable situation. Plus, children love happy endings, which Burton supplies. I think that adults relate to Burton's underlying themes — adjusting to change, the inevitable cycles of life, not giving up — as well as to the artistry of her illustrations on the page.

Q) Did you have a favorite Virginia Lee Burton book when you started this project, and did it change after you finished your book?

A) The Little House had always been my favorite Burton book, and, while I gained new appreciation of Life Story and The Song of Robin Hood, I find that The Little House combines story, image, theme, color, perspective, use of the page, and harmony of image and text to the fullest. It was surely deserving of its 1943 Caldecott Medal and continues to have a special place in my heart.

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