Virginia Lee Burton

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Virginia Lee Burton
Black and white headshot of author Virginia Lee Burton.jpg
BornVirginia Burton
(1909-08-30)August 30, 1909
Newton Centre, Massachusetts, United States
DiedOctober 15, 1968(1968-10-15) (aged 59)
Boston, Massachusetts
OccupationIllustrator, writer
GenreChildren's picture books
Notable works
Notable awardsCaldecott Medal

Virginia Lee Burton (August 30, 1909 – October 15, 1968), also known by her married name Virginia Demetrios, was an American illustrator and children's book author. She wrote and illustrated seven children's books, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1943), which won the Caldecott Medal. She also illustrated six books by other authors.

Burton founded the textile collective, Folly Cove Designers, in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which had numerous museum exhibitions. Some of its members' works are held today in the collections of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Cape Ann Museum, and New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.[1]


Early life and education[edit]

Virginia Burton[a] was born in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. As a child, she was called "Jinnee". Her mother was Lena Yates, a lyric poet and artist from England whose poetry was first published at age 20.[2] Yates later published children's books under the name Lena Dalkeith.[3] Later, she went by the moniker Jeanne D'Orge.[3] Virginia Burton's father, Alfred E. Burton, married Lena Yates after he had been widowed with two sons. Yates was 30 years his junior. They were married in 1906, having met on a walking trip in France. Notably, Burton's father served as the first Dean of Student Affairs for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1902-1921).[4] Alfred Burton had been widowed.[3]

Virginia had an older sister, Christine, and younger brother, Alexander Ross Burton, in addition to their father's first two sons, Harold Hitz Burton and Felix Arnold Burton.[3] She recounted their boisterous holiday celebrations, and singing, dancing and theatrical productions as children.[5] Harold became an attorney, politician and Supreme Court Justice; and Arnold an architect.[3]

When Virginia was about 8 years old, her family moved to San Diego, California, as the New England winters were hard on her mother's health. Her father, close to his retirement in 1921 after 40 years at MIT, took a leave of absence. A year later the family settled 450 miles north in Carmel-by-the-Sea, then a small, artistic community. Burton and her sister took dance and art lessons, performing in local productions.[5] Her parents divorced in 1925, and her father returned to Boston.

After attending local schools, Burton won a state scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where she studied both art and dance.[5] Living in Alameda across the bay while attending art school, she used the long commute by train, ferry boat and cable car "to train myself in making quick sketches from life and from memory of my unaware fellow passengers."[6]

Return to East Coast[edit]

In 1928, after a year at art school, Burton moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where her father was living. It was also closer to her sister, by then a dancer in New York City, who invited Virginia to join her. Their father broke his leg, and Burton stayed in Boston to help him. She found work as a "sketcher" for the newspaper Boston Evening Transcript (now defunct). For two-and-a-half years, she worked under its drama and music critic. Portraying actors and other performers, she signed her drawings as "VleeB".[6]

In fall 1930, Burton enrolled in a Saturday morning drawing class taught by sculptor and artist George Demetrios at the Boston Museum School. By spring, the two artists were married.[7] For a year, the couple lived in Lincoln, where their first son Aristides (called Ari) was born. They moved to the Folly Cove neighborhood of Gloucester. Their second son Michael was born in nearby Groton on Burton's birthday in 1935.[8]

Burton said her first published book, Choo Choo (1935), about an anthropomorphic train engine, reflected strategy she learned from reactions to her first book, which was not published:

My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest ... the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.[6]

She was known for designing the whole work: design, illustration, typeface, and space.[9] She said first she made her drawings or preliminary sketches, then she wrote the story, as it came first to her in images. Her papers include the "numerous preparatory sketches, the reworking of illustrations that had not proven personally satisfactory to [her], and the demands for quality reproduction of the artwork [that] indicate her meticulous attention to detail." Her books were known for their themes of "importance of teamwork, environmental awareness, perseverance, and adapting to change while still recognizing the importance of the past."[9]

In 1941, Burton founded the textile collective, Folly Cove Designers, in Cape Ann, Massachusetts and designed some of the textiles. Its works were included in arts and crafts exhibitions of the 1940s and 1950s. It reflected the earlier Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century, "both in its union of design and production and in the formation as a cooperative guild. The linoleum block print designs for domestic items were innovative and unique, bringing recognition and accolades to the group."[2] The group sold some of their textiles to major retailers such as Lord & Taylor, F. Schumacher, Rich's of Atlanta and Skinner Silks.[2]

They had 16 museum exhibitions[2] and some of their works are held in the collections of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.[1]

Burton died on October 15, 1968 of lung cancer.[10]


Aristides Burton Demetrios is a sculptor of figurative and abstract works, ranging from large public commissions to private pieces for gardens. Michael Burton Demetrios was a businessman, leading Marine World Africa in its numerous locations in the United States. Since 1998 he had been president of Intra-Asia, a US company with two amusement parks in China and plans for five additional. Michael died August 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

Awards and legacy[edit]


Houghton Mifflin published the seven books which Burton wrote and illustrated:[10]

  • Choo Choo (1937); ISBN 0-395-47942-8
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939); ISBN 0-590-75803-9
  • Calico the Wonder Horse, or the Saga of Stewy Stinker (1941); reissued 1997
Burton said she wrote the comic-strip-format Calico "for both Aris and Mike [her children] in an attempt to wean them away from comic books."[12]
Burton said the house of the title "was based on our own little house which we moved from the street into 'a field of daises with apple trees growing around.'"[12]
Burton based the book's city of Geoppolis and its highway department on Gloucester.[12]
Burton said this book reflected "my school days in San Francisco."[12]
Burton presents the history of the world, from Big Bang to her present day, as a theater production.[12] Updated on 2009.

Illustrated by Burton[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Cape Ann Historical Association, Folly Cove Designers : a Retrospective, exhibit June 27 through September 7, 1982.[2]
  • An animated short film was produced of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, directed by Michael Sporn, narrated by stand-up comedian Robert Klein and first aired by HBO in 1990.
  • Christine Lundberg and Rawn Fulton made a documentary film, Virginia Lee Burton: a Sense of Place (2007), Red Dory Productions (Gloucester, Massachusetts) in partnership with Searchlight Films (Bernardston, Massachusetts).[2]
  • Sinikka Nogelo made a documentary film, Folly Cove Designers, produced by WNEC (Gloucester).[2]
  • Walt Disney Pictures released a special cartoon of "The Little House" in 1952, directed by Wilfred Jackson, and narrated by voice actor Sterling Holloway.[13]
  • Robert J. Bradshaw, Suite No. 3, "Katy and the Big Snow", was commissioned in 2009 by the Cape Ann Symphony, which premiered it that year.[14]
  • A local community effort in Lanesville, Gloucester is working on the reconstruction of the original Little House. Completion is scheduled for Fall 2018.
  • An animated adaptation of Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away was seen in Shelley Duvall's Bedtime Stories and was narrated by country singer, Bonnie Raitt.


  1. ^ Burton added the middle name later on the advice of her High School principal.
    Cech, John (editor), Dictionary of Literary Biographies: American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, Gale Research, 1983, volume 22, pp. 88.


  1. ^ a b c Killeen, Wendy (November 18, 2007). "Writer Remembered". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 28, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Virginia Lee Burton", Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library
  3. ^ a b c d e Barbara Elleman, Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, pp. 7-9
  4. ^ MIT History: Office of the MIT Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, Library, MIT, 1995-last updated 2013
  5. ^ a b c Burton, Virginia Lee (n.d.). "Childhood". Houghton Mifflin Company. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved February 28, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c Burton, "Early Years", Houghton Mifflin. Archived June 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Burton, Burton, "Folly Cove", Houghton Mifflin. Archived June 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ "Virginia Lee Burton: Aris & Mike", Houghton Mifflin. Archived June 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ a b c Jason Buchanan, Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place (2007), Rovi, at Rotten Tomatoes, accessed 3 February 2014
  10. ^ a b Ortakales, Denise (n.d.). "Women Children's Book Illustrators: Virginia Lee Burton (1909–1968)". (fan site).
  11. ^ "Caldecott Medal Winners, 1938 - Present". Association for Library Service to Children. Retrieved February 28, 2012.
  12. ^ a b c d e "Books by Virginia Lee Burton". Houghton Mifflin Company. n.d. Retrieved February 28, 2012.
  13. ^ Disney A-Z: "The Little House, website
  14. ^ Katy and the Big Snow, website

Further reading[edit]

  • Cape Ann Historical Association, Folly Cove Designers, 1996.
  • Elleman, Barbara. Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, ISBN 0-618-00342-8
  • Elleman, Barbara. Those Telling Lines : the Art of Virginia Lee Burton, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (Amherst, Mass.), 2009.

External links[edit]