Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is having a Virginia Lee Burton moment—or more accurately, multiple moments. On September 5, the publisher will issue Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by John Rocco. The tribute to the late author continues with the September 26 release of an updated edition of Choo Choo, chronicling the adventures of a little locomotive who decides to run away from her humdrum duties. And due on October 2 is a 75th anniversary edition of Burton’s Caldecott-winning The Little House, a cautionary tale about the changes that industrialization and development bring to a little house in the country.
Rinker is a fitting biographer for Burton (1909–1968), whom family and friends called Jinnee. Rinker remembers The Little House as her “first literary love,” and credits her two sons’ obsession with the author’s classic works about big machines (notably Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) for inspiring her to become a children’s book author. And hard-working machinery plays pivotal roles in several of Rinker’s own bestselling picture books, including Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, Steam Train, Dream Train, and Mighty, Mighty Construction Site, all illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld and published by Chronicle.
“I have such strong memories of my grandmother reading The Little House to me—in fact, it is the very first book I remember having read to me,” Rinker said. “And years later, I became equally enamored with Mike Mulligan, Choo Choo, Katy, and Maybelle when, as a mom, I read their stories to my machine-loving boys and saw how much they loved them. I was a graphic designer at the time, and though I’d always loved the picture-book medium, it was seeing these books’ effect on my sons that led me to write a picture book of my own.”
After Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site came out in 2011 and was a critical and commercial success, Rinker began thinking more about how Burton had influenced her “as a child, as a mom, and as a writer.” And, she recalled, “I knew that I wanted to write something that would pay tribute to her as a person, an author and artist, and a mother.” That conviction paved the way for Big Machines. “One day I jumped in with both feet and began researching Burton’s life, gathering any piece of information I could,” Rinker said. “I asked Amy Rennert, my agent at the time, to submit the book proposal exclusively to HMH, since Houghton Mifflin was Burton’s publisher, and I loved the idea of my biography of her sitting beside her own books.”
Kate O’Sullivan, senior executive editor at HMH, admitted to having a mixed reaction when she received the proposal for Big Machines. “I was both nervous and excited by the idea,” she recalled. “Nervous because Burton and her books are so beloved, and crafting a love letter to her would have to be done just right. And then excited when I saw that Sherri had pulled it off. It also pleases my sense of symmetry that Sherri’s life shares many synchronicities with Virginia’s, not least their sons as inspiration for their ‘things that go’ work.”
Putting a Face on Burton and Her Creations
Next up was selecting an artist, which began with Rinker submitting a wish list of five potential illustrators. When O’Sullivan asked the author who her top choice was, Rinker gave Rocco the nod, and much to the author and editor’s delight, he rearranged his illustration schedule to accept the assignment.
“I knew that we wanted an illustrator who could pay tribute and give a nod to Burton’s work, but without feeling derivative,” the editor noted. “And I also knew that we needed an artist who was equally skilled with depicting machines and humans. So John’s artistic talents and designer’s eye were a perfect match for this considerable challenge. I just love that he’s created an easy exchange between reality and fantasy in terms of Burton’s life and her books. Really, what’s better than one amazing artist celebrating another?”
That, in fact, was a challenge that initially daunted Rocco. “At first it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of illustrating a book about another children’s book artist without just showing her drawing,” he recalled. “But a lot of Jinnee’s personality came through as I went through her sketches and books. I suddenly realized that she was the embodiment of The Little House. She had an appreciation for technology and moving forward, but was much more closely tied to a simpler life. To portray her symbolically as her book’s little house, which was surrounded by daisies, I pictured Jinnee wearing a skirt emblazoned with daisies. And when I learned that she was a dancer, I wanted her dancing across the page as she created her art, and tried to capture the sense of flow and movement across the pages of her own books, and to pay homage to her meticulous sense of design.”
Both Rocco and Rinker gained a great deal of insight into Burton’s character and work courtesy of her sons, Aris and Michael Demetrios (for whom, respectively, Choo Choo and Mike Mulligan were written) and her daughters-in-law, who gave the pair access to family photos, anecdotes, personal memorabilia, and the author’s sketchbooks. “Burton’s family opened not only Jinnee’s archives but also their homes and hearts to us,” Rinker said. “Their support and excitement over this book has not only been tremendously helpful to the process, but also cast a feeling of love and legacy over this project.”
Rocco recalled watching Aris react to some of his early illustrations for Big Machines. “I wanted to get some feedback and, honestly, his blessing,” he said. “Aris’s emotional reaction to seeing the art was palpable, and I remember him saying, ‘It’s like Jinnee is here with us.’ That, to me, was confirmation that I was on the right track. And he offered several notes that really helped me, including making sure Jinnee was always wearing a silver wedding band, and that the young Aris always sported a cowlick!”
Working on Big Machines, art director Cara Llewellyn also felt a similar bond with and responsibility to Burton and her legacy. “I am such a big fan of Jinnee’s work, and this biography expresses her life in such a beautiful way,” she said. “It was a treat to work with John and Sherri—this was a passion project for us all. We really spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how Jinnee herself would have made this book. It put pressure on us all, but a lovely pressure. It was very special to channel her—and become immersed in her world.”
The Celebration Continues
Burton fans will notice that the updated editions of Choo Choo and The Little House include some new features. Choo Choo (which was the author’s debut book, first published in 1937 with black-and-white illustrations) now has an updated cover treatment, full-color art, and a free audio download of Aris reading the story.
“As much of Burton’s other work is in full-color, we saw an opportunity to more closely align this book with Mike Mulligan and The Little House,” explained HMH v-p and associate publisher Mary Wilcox. The publisher lined up artist Lauren Pettapiece to work with Aris, a sculptor, to colorize Burton’s original art. “They worked from the palettes Burton had used in her color illustrations for subsequent books to find the treatment most fitting for Choo Choo,” Wilcox said. “Lauren focused on using color to highlight movement and energy. The challenge was balancing the color and charcoal, where neither overpowers the other, but work in tandem to bring these bustling scenes to life.”
For The Little House 75th Anniversary Edition, the publisher inserted peel-off window clings on a perforated sheet in the back of the book, to enable readers to decorate their own little houses. And, Wilcox added, “We refreshed the foil on the jacket to match the lovely brightness of the Caldecott Medal. It was the rare opportunity to think about a cover after you know it’s going to have a medal on it!”
Though no additional Burton books are currently scheduled for reissue, Wilcox left the door open for the future: “At HMH, we are the proud caretakers of Virginia Lee Burton's legacy, and we will always be working to ensure that her timeless books are in the hands of each new generation."
Big Machines: The Life of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus. by John Rocco. HMH, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 0-544-71557-8
Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine That Ran Away by Virginia Lee Burton. HMH, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-544-74984-9
The Little House 75th Anniversary Edition by Virginia Lee Burton. HMH, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-328-74194-3