|This article needs additional citations for verification. (May 2012)|
October 14, 1893|
Springfield, Ohio, USA
|Died||September 11, 1974
Tarpon Springs, Florida
|Education||Ohio State University, Art Students League of New York, Westminster School of Art|
|Genre||Children's novels, picture books|
|Notable awards||Newbery Medal
1946 Strawberry Girl
Lois Lenski (October 14, 1893 – September 11, 1974) was a popular and prolific writer of children's and young adult fiction.
One of her projects was a collection of regional novels about children across the United States. The series includes her most famous work, Strawberry Girl, about a girl in Florida; Blue Ridge Billy, about a North Carolina youth living in rural Appalachia; Bayou Suzette, etc.
She won the annual Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl in 1946.
Lois Lenski was born in Springfield, Ohio on October 14, 1893. She was the fourth of five children born to Richard Lenski, a Lutheran clergyman of Prussian descent, and Marietta Young Lenski, a Franklin County, Ohio native, who was a schoolteacher before her marriage. When Lois was six, her family moved to the small town of Anna, Ohio, west of Springfield, where Richard Lenski was called to be a pastor (2). For the next twelve years, Lenski’s life centered around her schooling and family activities, including drawing, photography, reading, sewing, and gardening (2). Journey into Childhood, Lenski’s autobiography, published in 1972, documents her memories of her early life in a small Mid-western rural community at the turn of the century. Of that life, Lenski stated, “Life in a small town in Ohio before the First World War was simple, sincere and wholesome… I am glad to have been a child in the horse-and-buggy days, and to have known and felt the joys of real peace and security.” (3)
After commuting by train to high school in Sidney, Ohio, Lenski graduated in 1911. She and her family moved to Columbus, where her father joined the faculty of Capital University. Lenski studied at Ohio State University, graduating in 1915 with a B.S. in education and a teaching certificate. With encouragement from her art professors at Ohio State, she moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League, where she took classes for four years. (2)
While studying at the Art Students League, Lenski supported herself with lettering jobs, painting greeting cards, and drawing for fashion advertisements (2). She met her future husband, Arthur Covey, in an art class, and became his assistant in painting several murals. Lenski travelled to London, where she attended Westminster School of Art, and Italy in 1920-21. While in London, she was hired to illustrate books by the British publisher John Lane. Shortly after returning from Europe, Lenski and Covey married, in 1921. In so doing, Lenski became stepmother to Margaret, aged 12, and Laird, aged 4. (2). Considering the 1920s her apprenticeship period, Lenski illustrated Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy series. With encouragement from her publisher, she began on a new venture. She wrote and illustrated her first book, Skipping Village in 1927, followed the next year by A Little Girl of 1900, based on her childhood years (2). With these books, as she writes in The Life I Live, Collected Poems (1964), Lenski’s work reflects her desire to portray this “theme – a child and his town, or a child and his environment – [which] can be traced through all my books.”(4)
Early Writing/Illustration - Including Introducing "Mr. Small"
In 1929, Lenski and Covey moved their family to Harwinton, Connecticut, to a farm built in 1790, called Greenacres, several months after the birth of their son, Stephen. Inspired by Stephen’s childhood years, Lenski commenced on what would become the beloved “Mr. Small” series, beginning with The Little Auto (1934) (2). Mr. Small was a versatile as well as charming hero for Lenski and her readers; he sailed a boat, piloted an airplane, farmed, and kept the peace, in Policeman Small (1962), among other adventures.
Historical Fiction for Preteens
Lenski also wrote and illustrated historical fiction for preteens, beginning with Phebe Fairchild, Her Book (1936), a story set in the 1830s and inspired by Lenski and Covey’s 1790 Connecticut farmhouse. This was the first in a series of seven meticulously researched novels. About these books, Lenski wrote in her autobiography that her motivation was to “describe the everyday life of people in a given period, to tell what they thought, felt, said, and did, how they got their food, shelter, and clothing”. Lenski distinguished herself with this series by writing about geographically and culturally diverse children. Phebe Fairchild and Indian Captive were both named Newbery Honor books. (2)
Lenski published the “Davy” series in the 1940s, books inspired by her grandson, David Chisholm, son of Margaret, who spent the summers with his grandparents for several years. (2) These small-scaled books focus on the everyday adventures of a little boy.
Travels to the South and the Roundabout Books
Beginning in the 1940s, with her health compromised by the cold northern winters, following her doctor’s advice, Lenski and Covey began to spend their winters in the south, first in Louisiana and then in Florida. During these travels, Lenski broadened her experience of the United States. In her autobiography she wrote, “On my trips south I saw the real America for the first time. I saw and learned what the word region meant as I witnessed firsthand different ways of life unlike my own. What interested me most was the way children were living”. (2) Thus began her Roundabout books, focused on often underrepresented populations, much like her historical novels, but for a younger audience. The second book in this series, Strawberry Girl (1945) was awarded the Newbery Medal, in 1946. (2)
Lenski and Covey built a house in Florida in 1951, and spent increasing amounts of time there. Covey died in in 1960. Lenski eventually sold their Connecticut farmhouse and moved to Florida year-round. She published her “Debbie” series, inspired by her granddaughter, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her collected speeches, Adventures in Understanding: Talks to Parents, Teachers, and Librarians, 1944-1966, were published in 1968. She continued to write in her later years, publishing her autobiography in 1972. (2)
Death and Legacy
Lois Lenski died at her Florida home in 1974 at age 80 after a long, successful career. Her many books have become classics in children’s literature, appealing in their simple portrayal of childhood. She rejoiced in depicting a broad sweep of the American childhood experience, frequently reflecting universal feelings and truths of being very young, throughout her distinguished career.
- "Lois Lenski Papers". De Grummond Children's Literature Collection. University of Southern Mississippi Retrieved 2013-12-18. With biographical sketch.
2 – Milner Library, Illinois State University, Lois Lenski: A Biographical Sketch, Vanette Schwartz http://library.illinoisstate.edu/unique-collections/lois-lenski/about.php 3 – Ohioana Authors/WOSU Public Media: http://www.ohioana-authors.org/lenski/highlights.php 4 - The Life I Live: Collected Poems, Lois Lenski, H. Z. Walck, 1965
- Books Written and Illustrated by Lois Lenski — bibliography at Illinois State University
- Lois Lenski Papers, 1915–1970 at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (UNCG)
- "Lois Lenski: Voices of Children" — 2011 exhibit at UNCG
- Lois Lenski Papers at The Bancroft Library
- Lois Lenski Papers in the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection — with biographical sketch
- Lois Lenski at Library of Congress Authorities, with 186 catalog records