TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton, an illustrator of children's books known primarily for bringing inanimate objects to life and for her vivid scratchboard drawings, was born on August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. She married George Demetrios, a sculptor and teacher, in 1931. They had two sons.

Burton first studied art at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and later returned to the East Coast and attended the Boston Museum School. An early job as an artist was as sketcher for the music, dance, and theater sections of the Boston Transcript. She subsequently settled in Folly Cove, Gloucester, Massachusetts with her family.

Burton illustrated and wrote many books, the most beloved by children being Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away (1937), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939), Calico the Wonder Horse (1941), and The Little House (1942).

Burton often commented that for her, writing was always the difficult part of creating children's books. But because she needed to be in complete control over every aspect of the creative process, she also wrote the text for the majority of the books she illustrated. It is apparent in her books that the illustrations are more central to the story than the text. It was her creative process to draw the pictures first, then let the text develop in relation to the illustrations. With regard to the creative process, she once commented, "I literally draw my books first and write down the text after ... I pin the sketched pages in sequence on the walls of my studio so I can see the books as a whole. Then I make a rough dummy and then the final drawings, and at last when I can put it off no longer, I type out the text and paste it in the dummy." Despite the precedence of the graphic over the prose, the texts are still very effective due to Burton's sparse use of precisely chosen words to create the most effective story. Her texts are particularly effective when read aloud.

Following the truism that children's books are for children, she used her sons and their friends as guides, and early on developed a routine collaborative process with them for creating her books. By a process of trial and error, she would show her pictures and read drafts of her stories, taking her sons' reactions seriously and changing the graphics and texts until the children responded positively.

Burton won the Caldecott Medal in 1943 for The Little House, the story of a house that is swallowed up by a growing city but is rescued in the end by being moved to the country. Like the machine-heroines in her other books, the house has human characteristics and feelings such as curiosity, loneliness, fear, and happiness--feelings with which children can identify. Upon receiving the award, Burton said, "In [my] creative collaboration with children I have learned several things. First, one must never 'write down' to children. They sense adult condescension in an instant, and they turn away from it. Moreover, their perception is clear and sharp ... every detail, no matter how small or unimportant, must possess intrinsic interest and significance and must, at the same time, fit into the big design of the book."

Virginia Lee Burton died in 1968.