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Teaching an Author Study


Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton began her life in Massachusetts, and after a foray in California, settled locally, North of Boston, on Cape Ann, in the port city of Gloucester. Burton taught art and led a group of women artists known as the Folly Cove Designers, whose print and textile works are still renowned today. With the Folly Cove group, Burton developed a philosophy of design that emphasized thoughtful placement of figures and objects on the page, and patterns of lines and shapes. This philosophy also underpinned her illustrations in the children's books she went on to write, and her signature art style is characterized not only by patterns and placement, but especially by a sense of movement that also came from her work with Folly Cove.

We have four stories by Virginia Lee Burton in our collection, and they all showcase this signature art style! Take a look for yourself and see--you will also surely notice another signature feature of her works--that her subjects are not regular figures, but personified structures and machines: a little house, a steam shovel, a snowplow, and a cable car. Each of these objects is imbued with a distinct personality, and a set of wants and needs. Three of them--the ones with engines--are shown in motion chugging across the page. The titular Little House sees the world set in motion around it, as time marches on, and the country turns into the city in the background.

Each of the four works deals with similar themes, including the advance of technology, the procession of history, and the sense of purpose that the author assigns to the subjects. Readers of all ages can identify with the feelings shared by Mike Mulligan's steam shovel, Katy the snowplow, and Maybelle the Cable Car--feelings of longing to spend our time engaged in meaningful work, to do a good job, and to be appreciated. And the author's art and literature work hand in hand to communicate these ideas with us!

Picture Books at the ERC

Questions to Consider

After reading more than one book by this author, ask yourself:

  • What is the same or different across multiple texts?
  • How does Virginia Lee Burton develop ideas about technology, progress, purpose, or time across multiple texts?
  • How does her approach change from one text to another?
  • How do the illustrations contribute to the stories' meaning?

Life of the Author

Further Reading

Virginia Lee Burton and the Cape Ann Museum

Broader Context