Print Friendly and PDF With Strings Attached: Book review: rediscovering Lois Lenski

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book review: rediscovering Lois Lenski

Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl was one of the first books I re-read when I embarked on a long-term project to read, or re-read, all of the Newbery Medal books.[1]  When I reviewed it in this blog post I commented that I’d enjoyed Lenski’s Regional books  when I was in grade school and that I’d like to read them again.  

That opportunity was sparked a few weeks ago when I found Judy’s Journey and Coal Camp Girl on the discard shelf at the library.[2] I took them home, read them, and promptly searched the library catalog for the rest of the series. Interlibrary loan provided seven more – Boom Town Boy, Bayou Suzette, Blue Ridge Billy, Texas Tomboy, Prairie School, Flood Friday, and To Be a Logger.  ILL also provided Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, by Bobbie Malone, published in 2016.   The in-depth biography provides great context and the story-behind-the-stories.  

Lois Lenski was born in 1893 and grew up in southwestern Ohio.  She had a happy childhood with loving and supportive parents. She graduated from the Ohio State University in 1915 and moved to New York for advanced art training. In 1921 she married Arthur Covey, a widower who was one of her art instructors.  They settled in a small town in west-central Connecticut.  She illustrated other people’s books (including the Betsy-Tacy books).  In the 1930’s she began to write and illustrate the very popular Mr. Small picture books, inspired by her young son, and seven historical novels for middle-grade readers, inspired by her New England surroundings.

The regional series began with Bayou Suzette in 1943.  Lois, her husband, and son visited south Louisiana in 1941. “Lois was so captivated by the bayou-dwelling folk that she swiftly converted from the written sources of the past to the oral testimony of the present,” Malone writes (p. 137).  Lois did the research for each book on-site.  “Whenever she inhabited a new setting…she felt compelled to study and come to terms with it….Just as she mastered the ability to record a scene in her sketchbook, she used her keen ear for dialect to pick up the unique nuances in expression in every region.”  The illustrations were inserted “to animate the narrative and in sufficient detail so a child reader could revisit the page mentally, visualizing and emotionally empathizing with the protagonists.”

Each of the Regionals includes a foreword in which Lois explains the setting and how the book came to be. For example, students in a rural school in South Dakota wrote to her asking for a book about them. That became Prairie School (1951).   Flood Friday (1956) is set in near Lois’s Connecticut home in the aftermath of flooding caused by  back-to-back hurricanes.

Judy's Journey 
To me, the most poignant of the Regionals is Judy’s Journey (1947). It is about a family of migrant farm workers. They leave the Alabama cotton farm where they were sharecroppers and follow the crops from Florida to Carolinas and up the east coast.  Judy had never even tasted an apple until they arrived at a southern New Jersey orchard.  In the foreword Lois describes the plight of migrants and the work of the Home Missions Council to provide social services – that being the time before federal aid programs.  

                                                                   Quilting makes an appearance in Blue Ridge Billy (1946).
“I got somethin’ to show you,” said Sarey Sue. She ran to a pile of quilts stacked on the chest by the loom. She pulled off the top one.  “What’s that?” asked Billy. “Hit’s a new quilt-top I pieced up, said Sarey Sue, filled with pride. “I’m good at finger-sewin’….See all them nice, even, teeny-tiny stitches?”…”I had a dream last night,” she went on gaily. “I was sleepin’ under my quilt-top for the first ime. Know what they say about that? Your dream’ll come true!  I dreamed about you!” [That Billy would be a fiddling champion.]

Bobbie Malone summarizes the effect:  “Lois’s Regionals leave us an indelible, invaluable, and intimate portrayal of children’s lives across the country in the first six decades of the twentieth century.”  They “have become valuable themselves as source material documenting lifeways that have diminished or vanished.”  (pp. 215-216).   

The Regional books truly celebrate America’s cultural diversity.  And now I need to put in interlibrary loan requests so I can read the rest of the series!

 Old library books indeed. It's been the Zion-Benton Public Library since 1975.  

[1] Two summers ago I declared that I would read all the Newbery Medal books and review them on my blog.   I thought I’d accomplish that in a matter of months but other books intervened.  So far I’ve read, or re-read, and blogged about 23 of the 94. (#95 will be announced at the ALA Midwinter meeting later this month.)  One of my reading resolutions for 2017 is to resume the project and read 25 more.  That will get me to the halfway point.
[2] One copy was acquired in 1967 and the other in 1972.  The stout library binding held up well but the pages were stained. Libraries discard good books all the time. I’ve done a lot of that weeding myself.

# # # # # # #
All the Regionals:
Bayou Suzette, 1943 – Louisiana
Strawberry Girl, 1945 –Florida
Blue Ridge Billy, 1946 – North Carolina
Judy’s Journey, 1947 – southeastern
Boom Town Boy, 1948 – Oklahoma
Cotton in My Sack, 1949 – Arkansas
Texas Tomboy, 1950 – west Texas
Prairie School, 1951 – South Dakota
Mama Hattie’s Girl, 1953 – Florida
Corn-Farm Boy, 1954 – Iowa
San Francisco Boy, 1955 – California
Flood Friday, 1956 – Connecticut
Houseboat Girl, 1957 – Ohio/Mississippi Rivers
Coal Camp Girl, 1959 – West Virginia
Shoo-Fly Girl, 1963 – Pennsylvania
To Be a Logger, 1967 – Oregon
Deer Valley Girl, 1968 -- Vermont

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