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Lois Lenski’s exquisite portraits of 20th century America’s hidden children

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Lois Lenski Storycatcher

Sustained Read

Lois Lenski was a popular author/artist/illustrator in the latter half of the 20th century.  After starting out as an illustrator, she began to write and illustrate books for very young children and eventually moved into writing chapter books.  According to her biography, the first chapter books were a little bit overwrought in that she had trouble narrowing down the copious amount of material she collected into a narrative that was interesting for the intended readers of the book: older children.  Even so, her first book, Phebe Fairchild, Her Book was a Newbery Honor Book in 1936. Over time, Lenski improved her technique, and really found her niche with her “Regional Series”.  In addition to having another one of her “Historicals” selected as a Newbery Honor book, the second of her “Regionals”, Strawberry Girl, won the Newbery Award in 1945. 

She called herself a “storycatcher” because she conducted extensive research, as much of it first-hand as possible, to create realistic stories for children that showed all kinds of families, as they lived, in the mid-twentieth century United States, in the Regionals, and in the U.S.’s earlier history, in the Historicals.


This image and the one below, both from 1922, so the difference between her earlier and later work. Cover photo is a detail from this larger work.

Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

 

The thing that is unusual about the Regional books is that they focus on children who have unusual, and often what we would consider “low income” backgrounds. And instead of just imagining what the lives of these children would be like, Lois Lenski actually spent significant periods of time in their communities, talking to the children, the families, their teachers, and others in their lives.  Once the first books were published, in some cases children and their teachers invited her into their community so that she could write about them, so some of the books were done that way. 

 

By this time, Lenski had mastered her pacing and plot development in children’s chapter books, so the stories are enjoyable for their stories as well as the unusual portrait they paint of American subcultures, some of which have subsequently disappeared.  While a common theme in the books is the importance of a stable home and the ability to attend school for children, generally the families are shown, however poor, as taking care of the children to the best of their abilities, and usually pretty competently.  Lenski takes care to reproduce the lives of the children sensitively, so that the children who recognize themselves in the books enjoyed them as much as children reading about unfamiliar aspects of American life.  She acknowledged that she omitted certain words the real families might have used, but for the most part she reproduces their pattern of speech.  In some of the books, she includes the words and music for songs to augment the reading of the books in school, and in all of them, her detailed illustrations help the reader see things that would be difficult to imagine, even with the descriptive detail. 

 

The books themselves are a treasure and an excellent resource to have.  One of the frustrating things about children’s literature is that is seems to constantly reproduce itself: there is not enough emphasis on the classics in children’s literature, which is strange and a shame.  These books, in particular, are like reading an ethnographic study that is made interesting for children, and a modern author simply can’t do what Lenski did.  He or she could capture children living now, but not the lifestyle of children living 50-75 years ago.


Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

 While Lenski’s books for young children are in print, most of her chapter books, with the exception of Indian Captive (Lenski’s first Newbery Honor Book) and Strawberry Girl, have mostly been out of print for a while.  Their continued poplularity, however, is shown by the prices the old copies demand online: around $50US and up. 

 

Luckily, most of the regionals are now back in print on Kindle and paperback copies, and the Lois Lenski Wikipedia page indicates that two more of the historicals, in addition to Indian Captive, will go back into print in 2020. 

 

In addition to her work as an author, Lois Lenski is personally an excellent role model.  The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she went to college to train as a teacher, one of the few practical jobs women could get in the 1920’s.  Lenski minored in art, however, and instead of going straight into teaching, she went off to New York City on her own to continue her artistic training and try to break into the field.  Lenski’s biography skims over exactly how she did that except to say that she didn’t use an agent and went around and visited publishers herself.  Wow! 

 

By the time the Depression in the thirties had arrived, Lenski had begun to establish herself.  By this time, she had married a former art teacher, who was widowed and had two children. He was primarily a muralist who worked for corporations, and during the Depression, they weren’t commissioning murals, so Lenski bore a large share of supporting the family. 

 

Eventually, he found work again through WPA projects and the Depression ended, but Lenski kept right on going.  Her first books were revolutionary in that they addressed the developmental needs of very young children, and her regionals were revolutionary for their realism and for focusing on communities and people that are usually invisible in children’s literature.

 

Lenski did her work largely out of a sense of social justice.  She wrote the lyrics to the songs to include in the book and she also wrote plays, pro bono, for children to perform in school and church groups to help them internalize the lives of underprivileged children.  Despite her upbringing, Lenski wasn’t especially religious, but she worked extensively with the (Lutheran?) Home Mission Board to develop social justice in children.

 

Lenski was adamant in her belief that acting helps children understand and internalize new ideas, and idea that is born out by modern educational research.

 

So Lois Lenski was an artist, illustrator, author, and in a sense, an anthropologist.  But instead of writing academic studies, she used her skill as an illustrator and author to bring a new kind of literature to children, one that engaged old audiences in a new way and new audiences, period.  The children were and are entertained, but like all good literature, Lenski’s books gave them something that they didn’t have before.

Note: scroll to the bottom of the post for charts indicating the settings of Lenski’s Regional and Historical Series.

Highlights from Lois Lenski’s work in print spring, 2020

Note: A chart of the location settings of the Regionals appears at the bottom of this article.


Strawberry Girl

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Family Read

Strawberry Girl is the second of Lenski’s Regionals, and her only book to win the Newbery Award Medal although two of her Historicals, Indian Captive and Phebe Fairchild, Her Book (out of print)* were both Newbery Honor Books. Strawberry Girl is far from my favorite of the Regionals, but it’s worth pointing out that when an author consistently publishes high-quality children’s books, sometimes the titles that end up with the rewards aren’t always the best books. For example, the last four titles in the Little House series were Newbery Honor Books, and none of them are Little House on the Prairie.

The setting is north Florida and the focus is a transitional period when the old “free range” system of cattle management was abandoned in favor of farming and other industries, such as the phosphorus plant that opens at the end of the novel.

The protagonist, Birdie, is a likeable character, but the plot, which centers on a battle between Birdie’s family and their neighbor’s, seems a bit anachronistic to me in 2020 although it does depict an authentic conflict happening at the time.

What is most annoying to me is the resolution of the book, which centers on a sudden religious conversion…one that is needed for the outcome it causes, but one that doesn’t set well with me just the same.

Strawberry Girl, like the other Regionals, conveys a distinct lifestyle in a corner of the United States that is often overlooked, and it does that well, but personally I prefer Bayou Suzette, which came before it, or Judy’s Journey, which is also partly set in Florida, which came after.

*Phebe Fairchild may be coming back into print in 2020.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison

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Family Read

Indian Captive is a fictionalized account of a real event. Mary Jemison was a real person who was really captured by the Seneca.

Doesn’t sound like a book that should still be in print right?

That’s why it’s important to give this book a read. Some children’s literature scholars are now dismissive of it or downright opposed to the view that Lenski presents, but in reality, Lenski went to great pains to learn about the Seneca lifestyle, including day-to-day activities and their cultural attitudes. The story Lenski tells.

Lenski shows the tension as Mary acclimates to the Seneca lifestyle and comes to love her new family while at the same time struggling with loss and her original identity.

Yes, it continued to boggle my mind that Mary comes to accept the people who killed her family (not the exact people, but the same nation) as her true family, but the fact that the reader can understand and accept Mary’s decisions demonstrate Lenski’s deftness as a storyteller. Perhaps it also helps us as readers to understand that Mary’s family really had no right to be where they were in the first place. They were people who had moved into someone else’s territory illegally.

What’s amazing is how Lenski makes us understand how a girl in Mary Jemison’s situation can come to understand and accept it. No one is very reasonable when it comes to our parents.

Bayou Suzette

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Family Read

Bayou Suzette is the first Lenski’s Regional Series, in which she did ethnographic research by spending several months in a community and getting to know the people before writing her book. Her abilities as an illustrator are an added bonus.

As she does in many if not all of her Regionals, Lenski captures the flavor of the community through their customs and the way they talk. One particularly memorable detail for me was when Suzette took the smallest of the cakes that her aunt offered her because to completely refuse would be rude, but she also refused to take more than the smallest possible treat from someone with whom she was angry. I get it. It’s Southern, even though the Louisiana Bayou and my part of the south are as about as far away as you can get. People on the Bayou probably would consider me a Yankee.

Judy’s Journey

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Family Read

Judy’s Journey is my favorite of the titles that I read. In most of the books in this series, the children are from families that many people would consider poor, but most of these characters don’t feel poor. That’s part of the charm of the books: they show that there are lots of different ways to live in the United States, and by extension, everywhere. It’s all ok.

But Judy and her family know what people think of them, and often the living quarters they are provided with are actually shocking, especially when they spend some time living on a stagnant canal and DRINKING THE WATER. Out of necessity.

They are poor. They know they are poor. They know they are despised by many people. Yet they keep on going, with their pride fairly well intact, and in the end, their attitude and hard work brings them the life they seek, which is a little farm of their own.

Although Judy’s parents want to do their best for her, at times, even their ignorance is a bit shocking. At one point, the family takes Judy’s brother to school so the nurse could examine a wound on his leg. It is only by serendipitous intervention from a neighbor that he is brought in for treatment at all, and the nurse has to teach the family some of the basics of hygiene, including the fact that they need to boil any iffy water before drinking it.

Judy is such a likable character that she saves the book from being a “hole” of depression. After the visit to the nurse, she kind of becomes an apprentice nurse herself and uses a First Aid kit and instructions she is given to help others in her community. Lenski also takes pains to show the white and Black migrant families, and especially Judy, working together for the betterment of all several years before the Civil Rights crusades really got going.

The overall message of the book is that a combination of hard work and helping hands will pull you through. For an adult reader, the family’s problems seem to be resolved a little to quickly and easily: that’s the only slight downside of this book.

Mama Hattie’s Girl

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Family Read

Mama Hattie’s Girl was actually the first of the Regionals that I read because I knew that Lenski’s chapter books were going to rise or fall, in my mind, on her treatment of African Americans and Native Americans (Indian Captive).

Using the same technique that she does in all the books, Lenski achieves fair portraits of people by letting the characters show their own experiences and points of view.

Mama Hattie’s Girl depicts the experiences of one girl as she participates in the Great Migration (when many Southern Blacks moved to the cities of the north) with her parents while leaving her grandma, who has played a central role in raising her, behind.

Prairie School

Short Read

Family Read

I decided to read Prairie School because I knew from Malone’s biography that is one of the books that were written by invitation.

Many of these books were read in schools, to the delight of children who had never seen other children like themselves depicted in books. Some children invited Lenski to write a book about them, and in many cases, Lenski developed relationships with their teachers and eventually wrote several books “on invitation”. I was particularly interested in Prairie School because it is set in South Dakota, where several of the Little House books are set. Prairie School particularly invites comparisons with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.

The book is very slightly flawed in places where Lenski goes slightly overboard with description that she puts in the mouths of the children, in contexts where it doesn’t quite make sense. An informed reader can see that she is probably quoting verbatim from what the children said to her, as an outsider, but within the context of their children, there is no one who doesn’t know the information. It’s too bad she couldn’t make use of the very young children as audiences for the older ones, but since the story is set in school, the younger children weren’t there.

Thus is the problem with essentially writing ethnography as fiction.

The last third of this book, however, is one of the most gripping parts of the entire series as the community is hit by a blizzard that lasts five or more days and results in several children having to spend several days at the school with the teacher. The wisdom of actually attaching the teacher’s home to the school becomes obvious as the group have basic living supplies: the only shortages the run come from some of the parents’ failures to provide provisions, such as coal and drinking water, that they are supposed to, not the teacher’s failure, who has plenty of food on hand. And fortunately one thing you do have a very good supply of in a blizzard is a source of drinking water, as long as you have the fuel to boil snow water.

A slight negative in this section is the portrayal of a native family (Sioux, I think) who are portrayed as ignorant for doing almost the same thing the teacher does a bit later on, and probably for similar reasons.

The blizzard is a fascinating source of comparison when paired with Wilder’s The Long Winter, set about ninety years later. In Wilder’s book, the settlers were new to the area and were unprepared for how bad the conditions could get. There were direct comparisons between the two books for me, especially in the depiction of the supply trains, and readers of both books can see the difference 90 years makes. Some of the most basic, common sense things the families do, such as annexing living quarters to the school house and keeping long ropes on hand during the winter so people, especially children, don’t get lost in the storm, makes the reader see exactly how woefully unprepared the settlers in The Long Winter were and how small their chance for survival.


Other Works by Lois Lenski

Lois Lenski is also very well known for her books intended for very young children; she is credited with almost inventing the genre.

The Little Airplane is her most popular “Mr. Small” book.

The Little Airplane

Quick Read

Family Read

If you have a sense of deja vu when you see Lenski’s books, it may be because you’ve seen her illustrations on books by other authors. One of the most popular remains her illustrations of the first four Betsy-Tacy books.

Short Read

Family Read

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury

 

Guide to Lois Lenski’s Regional Series

Below is a chart showing the specific location of Lenski’s “Regionals”. Except for Indian Captive, the “Historicals” are out of print as of publication, but further information will be added as it becomes available.


Settings of Lois Lenski’s Regional Series

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