Virginia Lee Burton was born August 30, 1909 in Newton Center, Massachusetts.
Her mother was a poet and a musician, who published children’s books under the name Lena Dalkeith, and her father was a Dean at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When she was eight, her father retired and the family moved to California for her mother’s health, settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Growing up, Burton studied art and theatre and dance.
She enrolled in art school and studied ballet in San Francisco, using the long train and ferry rides she took to get to school to sketch. After a year she moved back east to join her sister who was dancing professionally in New York. She signed on to dance as well, but after her father broke his leg she stayed to take care of him and became a sketcher for the local newspaper Boston Evening Transcript.
In the Spring of 1931 she married artist George Demetrios after taking his Saturday morning drawing class beginning the previous fall semester. Their first son Aristedes was born in 1932, and their second, Michael, was born on her 26th birthday in 1935. The family settled in the Folly Cove neighborhood fo Gloucester, and in 1941 Burton founded the Folly Cove Designers, a textile collective that became a group of internally known artisans. Their designs reflected the earlier Arts and Crafts Movement, but were also innovative and unique.
Burton says of her first (unpublished) book “My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.” (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/mike_mulligan/follycove.shtml)
Her first published illustration work was for Sad-Faced Boy (1937) by Arna Bontemps, a noted writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She followed this attempt with Choo Choo, the story of a beautiful little locomotive who runs away from her duties, published in 1937. Her best known works are Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1942), which was awarded the Caldecott Medal.
Burton was involved in every aspect of her books production, writing, illustrating and designing the typefaces that were used in each of her books. She would start by laying out the pictures, drawing the sketches first from life, pinning them in sequence to the walls of her studio before composing a dummy of the finals and pasting in text.
Virginia Lee Burton published her final book, Life Story, in 1962.
Burton died on October 15, 1968 of lung cancer.
In 2002 Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art was published, written by Barbara Elleman.