Monday, February 7, 2011

Hidden Classic #6: The Little House

The Little House was my very favorite picture book as a child, and it remains so today (I still have my childhood copy, ragged though it is). It's the sweet and perfectly-illustrated story of a little house with a soul who, after years of neglect, is returned to a home in the country with a family to love and care for her. The little pink house has the most charming, life-like face, and as a child I always wanted to live in it. In some ways, I still do.

It was only as an adult, sharing the book with children, that I realized that this is a classic example of a carefully, meaningfully politicized picture book. The little house, sturdily built during a simpler age, loves her life in the country but harbors a strong curiosity of what it might be like to live in the city. Her curiosity is satisfied when the city encroaches on her countryside home.

Since this is a picture book, in many ways it oversimplifies the tension between the country and the city, and the country is set up as a universal good while the city is painted as a heartless villain. Yet at the same time it provides a clear context--as relevant today as it was in 1943--through which to question the "progress" of development and rampant urbanization. However, Burton denied it was a critique of urban sprawl, but instead wished to convey the passage of time to younger readers, which she does beautifully.

The Little House was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1943 (given annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the single most distinguished American picture book for children), and was selected as one of the "100 Best Books of the 20th Century" by the National Education Association. It received rave reviews from its first appearance in 1942 onward and has never gone out of print since.

If The Little House and her other picture books were her only legacy, it would be more than enough. But Virginia Lee Burton's talents extended beyond creating wonderful picture books. "[T]o speak only of Burton's achievements as a picture book creator would be to paint only a part of the canvas of her life. She was also a dancer, an illustrator for an early Boston newspaper, a musician, a designer, a sculptor, and a printmaker." (from "Virginia Lee Burton: A Centenary Tribute" at

Other books by Virginia Lee Burton:
Calico the Wonder Horse
Choo Choo
The Emperor's New Clothes
Katy and the Big Snow
Life Story
Maybelle the Cable Car
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
The Song of Robin Hood

"If the page is well drawn and finely designed, the child reader will acquire a sense of good design which will lead to an appreciation of beauty and the development of good taste. Primitive man thought in pictures, not in words, and this visual conception is far more fundamental than its sophisticated translation into verbal modes of thought." ~ Virginia Lee Burton, "Making Picture Books", The Horn Book Magazine

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