Follow Me to Folly Cove: Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton The Little House

Virginia Lee Burton display
Mock-up for The Little House

I felt chills – actual tingles on my spine – while gazing into this plexiglass case at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As I child I loved the books of Virginia Lee Burton, including  The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Katy and the Big Snow. Perhaps you have read her books as well – it’s estimated that over 4.5 million copies have been sold. The Cape Ann Museum features many examples of Burton’s work, making it the perfect destination for my second Artist Date.

Virginia Lee Burton, also known as Jinnee, was a talented, vibrant artist in many creative fields. After a promising start as a ballerina, Burton came to Boston in 1928 to care for her ailing father. She met her future husband, noted sculptor George Demetrios, while taking a class at the Boston Museum School. Burton decided to try writing and illustrating children’s books as a way to earn income during the Depression.

Her first attempt, a story about a dust bunny, was a failure. It was rejected by publishers, and even her own young son fell asleep before the story ended. Burton persevered, imagining stories that would appeal to her two young boys. Her next book, Choo Choo, published in 1937, was a success. She continued to write more bright, warm-hearted books, all featuring strong female anthropomorphized characters. Burton’s The Little House was honored with the Caldecott Medal in 1943.

Sept 2013 Gloucester 003

Resourceful and energetic, Burton offered to teach drawing to a neighbor in exchange for violin lessons for her sons. The art classes quickly morphed into a sophisticated textile design collaborative, the Folly Cove Designers, composed of approximately 30 women taught by Burton. They carved highly intricate patterns on linoleum covered woodblocks and printed all manner of textiles, wallpaper, table linens, etc. Their whimsical and natural motif works attracted media attention, met with retail success, and were featured in major museum exhibitions.

Sept 2013 Gloucester 002

“Away In a Manger” block

Learning more about Burton and examining her works left me energized and rejuvenated. Her story reminded me of so many good things about the writing journey; to be collaborative with others, resourceful with time, energy and materials, to embrace ideas and inspiration across a wide range of disciplines, and above all to be joyful in one’s work.

Additional resources for more information on Virginia Lee Burton:

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About Cathy Ballou Mealey

Pre-published writer of children's books, poet. Wife, mother, daughter, sister, alumna, autism advocate. You can reach me via email at cmealey@post.harvard.edu
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38 Responses to Follow Me to Folly Cove: Virginia Lee Burton

  1. izatrapani1 says:

    A wonderful post, Cathy, and I especially love what you wrote at the end about the writing journey!

    • Iza, you remind me of Burton, for you, too, are a joyful multi-talented author-illustrator married to another artist! Burton and Demetrios were known to throw large parties celebrating music, food and dancing. What great neighbors they would be!

  2. rnewman504 says:

    Cathy, What a wonderful post! It must have been something to see her mock ups. Even I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it. On an aside, I’ve always wondered if her books would get published today. I can see editors having issues with the word counts.

  3. Thanks, Cathy! I really liked learning more about Burton’s teaching efforts and the beautiful – joyful – outcome.

  4. Ronna Mandel says:

    We are HUGE fans of Katy and The Big Snow. I cannot tell you how many times we read it while living in Frankfurt, Germany watching snowflakes fall outside carpeting our lovely city in cotton-colored coolness. This post brought back such wonderful memories. Thank you!

  5. Laura S. says:

    LOVE this post and am intrigued by the idea of an “artist date”. I think I’ll take one later this month to the picture book exhibit at the NYC Public Library! Thanks for planting that seed of an idea. =)

  6. Sue Wang says:

    I enjoyed this article a lot. Love your narrative, and Burton’s work. She created and spread beauty, and demonstrated a resourcefulness that perhaps is needed now too. And how she shared and created strong female characters… I am energized and inspired by this post. Off to create some intricate something. Thank you, Cathy!

    • I really love her attitude of creating beauty from simple, inexpensive things. For example, they used linoleum woodblocks because they were cheap. They could not afford a fancy press, so they used to make prints by JUMPING repeatedly on the blocks. Great exercise!

      To think that bartering violin lessons for drawing lessons led to such a rich alliance!

  7. jama says:

    Fascinating and inspiring stuff, Cathy. I know so little about Burton’s life though I’ve long loved her books.

    I used to do artist dates a few years ago. You’ve inspired me to start them up again. :)

  8. Tina Cho says:

    A great testimony of perseverance as well…to keep going and you could win a Caldecott! What a neat artist date you went on!

  9. Oh, I so wanna read that manuscript on dust bunnies now. I love to see how writing styles grow and evolve. A draft wasn’t in the museum, was it?

    • I’m not sure where that draft is Mike. Believe it or not, her papers are scattered in many locations including the archives at the Boston Public Library, the Cape Ann Museum, the San Francisco Public Library, Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oregon.

  10. Ooooh! To visit Glouchester! Naturally, I loved Virginia Lee Burton’s books as a child, but when I watched the movie you mentioned, Sense of Place, my admiration turned to obsession. Thanks for mentioning this excellent documentary. I hope everyone watches it. Both the movie, and Virginia herself, are so inspiring! Thanks.

    • I’m glad you were inspired Joanne! Gloucester is such an interesting place to visit, although they make a lot of fuss over the “Perfect Storm” movie history. Fabulous restaurants and lots of maritime sightseeing too!

  11. danacarey1 says:

    Good for you, Cathy, taking yourself out on an Artist’s Date. I love doing that but haven’t lately so you’ve helped push me out the door. And thanks for posting this– so interesting. I love museums like this– very inspiring.

  12. Wonderful! Magnificent! Magniful! :D COOL!

  13. Carrie F says:

    This is wonderful, Cathy! Mike Mulligan was one of my favorite books when I was little, and I truly love all her books. The PBS documentary was fascinating. She was such an inspiring person and artist. I’m so bummed, though – I just checked the Cape Ann museum and they are closed for renovation until next summer!! So I will have to wait a long time to get my VLB fix. Rats. :-( I’m glad you were able to get this visit in. What a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

  14. Oh that must have been so inspiring. I haven’t read all of her books so they can be on my next library list. I’ve read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel but this makes me want to read it again! Thanks for a great post, Cathy!

    • Classics from a simpler era, Penny.

      It was incredible to see how she labored over the lettering for the cover of “Katy”. Lots of pencil lines and white paint covering her earlier version. Revision – persistence – perseverance!

  15. Don’t know how I missed your lovely post. Very uplifting. Like your comment about your writing journey.

  16. Hannah Holt says:

    I like that she traded art lessons for violin lessons for her son. She was a creative lady in many ways. I love the work of Virginia Lee Burton. Thanks for this inspirational post.

  17. Pingback: Spilled Paint – deCordova Series | bildebok from Cathy Ballou Mealey

  18. I love this museum, and love Virginia Lee Burton, and this post of a great tour for reminding me of all that. I wish someone would replicate those great fabrics! I love your takeaway on joy, too. I just read an Atlantic article by Elizabeth Gilbert that just appeared online about her attempts to focus on wonder and questions in the writing process that was inspiring, too.

  19. This show looks amazing. Wish I could see it!

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