Virginia Lee Burton was born on August 30, 1909, in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Her dad was the first dean of MIT, until the family moved to California when Virginia was seven.

She received a scholarship to study visual art and dance at the California School of Fine Arts. The bridges hadn't been built yet, so it took her at least two hours to get to school, by train, ferry and cable car. She used the long commute to train herself in making quick sketches from life and from memory of her unaware fellow passengers.

In 1928, she and her father returned to Massachusetts. She was just about to go on tour with a ballet company when her father broke his leg. She stayed behind to take care of him, and returned to school.   "and that was the beginning and end of my dancing career, which was just as well, because I wasn’t very good anyway."   She attended Saturday morning drawing classes at the Boston Museum School. A few months later, she married her art teacher, George Demetrios.

Virginia was a lifegrard, a swimming instructor, and an art techer at the local YMCA. She also sketched for the music, dance, and theater sections of the Boston Transcript. After each of her dance performances, she would sketch the actors and performers from memory, staying up all night to make her deadline for the morning's paper.

Virginia and George had two sons, Aristides and Michael, and moved to Folly Cove, Massachusetts. Virgina found her inspiration in her boys. She began writing and illustrating books that she thought they would like. Thirteen publishers rejected her first try, Jonnifer Lint, a story of a dust particle. She finally gave up on that story after her three-year-old fell asleep on her lap while she was reading it to him. From then on, she took her children's advice about what to write, and what not to.   "One must never 'write down' to children. They sense adult condescension in an instant, and they turn away from it."

Virginia's first published book was Choo Choo, in 1935. This story of a runaway train engine set the pattern of animated machinery stories, which she would repeat in future books, such as my personal favorite Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

For Virginia, writing was always the difficult part of creating children’s books. But because she needed to be in complete control over every part of the creative process, she wrote the text for most of the books she illustrated. Her text is nice, but her books make it quite clear that their point is illustration. She made it a point to never use words for anything a picture could convey.

Virginia began teaching design, and in 1941 she founded a design group called The Folly Cove Designers, made up of students from her first class. The group became an art co-op, producing commercial textile designs. Burton believed that to insure individuality and quality, the designer and producer should be the same person or group - no middle man. The group’s hand block-printed fabrics for drapery and linens were extremely popular during the 50s, and were sold nationally. The group also maintained a shop in Folly Cove where they sold their creations.

Maybe a tablecloth shop doen't sound like a big deal, but Virginia's theories caught on, nationwide. "Folly Cove design" is based on the interaction of the subject in contrasting sizes and tones. Virginia worked for many years on a book based on her Folly Cove Design principles called Design - And How! Unfortunately, she never felt that the book was ready for a publisher, and I don't think it was ever published by anyone.

Virginia Lee Burton died on October 15, 1968, and oh was she pretty.

Aristides Burton Demetrios, Virginia's oldest son, is a renowned contemporary sculptor. He studied history and literature at Harvard, later studying sculpture with his father. His work is on display in galleries all over the US. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Michael Burton Demetrios, Virginia's second son, served as the model for the little boy who helps Mike and Mary Anne the steam shovel dig the cellar. He also attended Harvard, and served as president of Marine World Africa USA for more than twenty years. I don't know what that is, but it certainly sounds impressive.


Calico the Wonder Horse: Or the Saga of Stewy Stinker

Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away

Katy and the Big Snow

Life Story

The Little House   (1943 Caldecott Medal)

Maybelle the Cable Car

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

The Song of Robin Hood

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