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Pickle Me This

November 15, 2012

Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place

One day when I finally get my act together, I will write an enormous blog post about how this summer we ended up buying every single book Virginia Lee Burton ever wrote. The entire Virginia Lee Burton library, which now lives on a shelf in the living room, rather than in Harriet’s room with the other kids’ books. Harriet adores them all, and they mean a whole lot to all of us, actually. I read Burton’s biography last year, and it only increased my appreciation for her work, for her genius. To learn how important she considered book design to be, how innovative she was as an illustrator, the extraordinary praise her sons had for her as an artist and as a mother, the richness of her life, and her vision. I learned that beyond her books, Burton was also a well-known textile designer, founder of the Folly Cove Designers artistic community. She was brilliant, and her work is timeless, and her ideas have influenced the way I’ve come to understand the world, and my relationship to my child.

So in all my enthusiasm, I was pleased to discover a 2008 PBS documentary about Burton called Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place. Stuart and I borrowed it from the library and sat down to watch it last weekend, and while much of the material was familiar to me from the biography (whose author acted as a consultant for the film), I enjoyed the movie very much. Interviews with Burton’s sons, friends and fellow-artists, and even Dickie Birkenbush himself! Other interviews with children’s authors, librarians, academics and artists provided great context to Burton’s story and underlined her singularity.

I don’t know that I’d ever paid attention to Burton’s books’ feminist angle. She wrote with her sons as her intended audience so that her subject matter is decidedly “boyish” (not that it stops my girl!)–a train, a steam shovel, a snow plow, a cable car, a horse in a Western. But all her subjects–the train, the steam shovel, the snow plow, the cable car, the house and even the Little House herself–are charactertized as female. The female characters are equal partners with male characters, independent, strong and hard-working. Which provides me with a whole new level of appreciation for these books, though it’s not as though I needed one…

See also: “What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men

More details about the doc are here.

2 thoughts on “Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place”

  1. judy says:

    Thank you Kerry! Lovely.

  2. Susan Telfer says:

    These were among my kids very favourite books when they were little.

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