As a young girl, I loved reading Lois Lenski's books. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But living on a Midwestern farm and attending a small rural school meant that my world was limited. Lenski's books took me to places—and time periods—that I couldn't visit and introduced me to ideas that challenged me and made me think. I'm sure that her lucid style, engaging characters, and intriguing plots played a role in making me the writer I have become.
In Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, historian and educator Bobbie Malone has given us the first book-length biography of the Newbery Award-winning author/illustrator who enchanted us when we were children. Deeply researched, meticulously documented, and generously illustrated, the biography follows Lenski from her family life in the Ohio village parsonage where she grew up, to Ohio State, where she pursued her early love of drawing and volunteer work with children, graduating with a teaching certificate in 1915. And then to New York—that "cultural smorgasbord" that fed her imagination and fueled her professional ambition—and Europe. And then back to America in 1921, where she married Arthur Covey, a muralist with whom she'd studied in New York.
A widower with a daughter, twelve, and a son, four, Covey promised to respect his wife's need for creative time but assumed (as did most men at this time) that her attention to home and family would come first. Their move to a 1790s farmhouse in rural Connecticut and the birth of their son Stephen complicated Lenski's efforts to create a space in her busy family life for drawing and writing. But through the mid-1920s, she persevered in her work as a children's illustrator (chiefly, the Betsy Tacey series, by Maud Hart Lovelace). With an editor's encouragement, she drew on her childhood to publish (1927 and 1929) Skipping Village and A Little Girl of 1900, about her childhood.
That was the beginning of a long career that would produce picture books, historical novels, poetry and short stories, and series books, including her regional series and the Mr. Small and Davy series. Malone has done an exemplary job in showing how each of Lenski's projects grew out of her personal experience and interests, and how they fit into and contributed to the development of children's literature in America from the 1920s into the 1960s—especially the realism depicted in the seventeen ground-breaking books of her regional series (from Bayou Suzette in 1943 to Deer Valley Girl (1968). Malone is at her best when she provides the multiple contexts within which Lenski worked as a storyteller, illustrator, educator, and art professional. Especially interesting are her descriptions of Lenski's various professional networks (teachers, librarians, reviewers, and bookstore owners) which, Malone writes, helped her stay "young, vital, and open to new ideas and new opportunities that simultaneously expanded her repertoire while enlightening and enlarging her audiences." And all this before social media!
Malone's book will be most useful for readers and researchers who want to understand the many contributions of this important author-illustrator to the universe of children's literature and its evolution from idealized to realistic characters and settings. For those readers who wish for more insight into Lois Lenski's personal life (especially her sustained and often exhausting efforts to balance work, marriage, and children), Malone makes it clear that she carefully controlled her legacy by culling all personal correspondence and journals from the work-related primary materials that she sent to various archives. As a biographer, Malone herself was disappointed not to find more of the personal story, "so that a deeper sense of her familial relationships would be available." It would have been helpful, for instance, to know more about Lenski's relationship to her artist-husband, whom she supported for many years and who, Lenski herself says drily "was generous enough to admire my work when it was brought to his attention...and took a great deal of credit, and rightly, for my training and the help he had given me as a student."
But that wasn't the legacy Lenski wanted to leave. Instead, she has left us something else, Malone says: "a legacy of respect for the intellectual and emotional strength of children and in their ability to accept stories from life, there by widening a path to increasing realism in American children's literature." It was for this that Lenski wished to be remembered, as she says in "Dear Child," a poem to young readers:
my love I send,
I am your friend,
A friend of children here and there,
A friend of children
Bobbie Malone is retired as Director of the Office of School Services at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She is the author of several books and coauthor of Thinking Like a Historian.
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