One of my most treasured childhood keepsakes measures just over five inches square, with a photo my mother took in 1965 of a lady wearing a grey dress, white hat and a corsage pasted inside. Another cost $1.45.
Debbie and Her Grandma, a 1973 birthday gift from my parents, and the Crowell Crocodile paperback edition of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy and Tib that my grandpa bought for me as an after-school treat a few years later are special not just because of their givers. I vividly remember these stories because of Lois Lenski’s illustrations.
How could I forget the pretty string of red beads that Debbie brings her grandma as a present for staying overnight at her house? Or the triangle-shaped dips of ice cream that Betsy, Tacy and Tib eat in the window of Heinz’s Restaurant?
That’s what I thought recently, when more than a few people who asked what I did last Saturday responded, “Who’s Lois Lenski?” Allow me to introduce you to the acclaimed writer and artist from Ohio who published more than 90 books for children.
Lois Lenski was born on October 14, 1893 in Springfield. She was the fourth of five children born to Richard Lenski, a Lutheran minister, and his wife, Marietta, a former schoolteacher. A Little Girl of 1900, a book which Lenski wrote in 1928, is a fictionalized account of the six years she spent in Springfield.
In October 1899, the Lenskis moved to the small, rural community of Anna. For the next 12 years, Lenski flourished here, living in the parsonage for the St. Jacob Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“What a wonderful house it was, and what a perfect place for children!,” Lenski wrote in her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood. “It had steep gables and peaks and small porches, long narrow windows and a winding stairway. The porches and gables were ornamented with gingerbread trim, jigsaw scrolls, fancy pilasters and balustrades…. It was wonderful, a perfect house made just for us. It was full of mystery and magic, inside and out, and we never ran out of ideas. There were places to climb, places to hide, and all kinds of places to play.”
Lenski’s first book, Skipping Village, published in 1927, is based on her childhood in Anna. The Lenskis’ home, the church, the town hall and several other buildings mentioned in Skipping Village are still standing. I used the book’s endpaper map to find them when I finally made the pilgrimage to Anna.
As a third-grader, Lenski started tracing pictures of flowers in seed catalogs and painting them with watercolors. Soon, she was winning prizes for her paintings in the Shelby County Fair. Her interest in art was off and running.
In 1911, the Lenskis left Anna for Columbus, after her father had been invited to join the faculty of Capital University. Lenski enrolled in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. She also took classes in art, design and lettering, which came in handy later as she hand-lettered all her own book jackets and title pages. She drew illustrations for several campus publications, served as the art editor for the 1915 Makio yearbook, and taught sewing and crafts for the Columbus Department of Recreation.
“Columbus always epitomized Ohio for me,” Lenski wrote in her autobiography. “There is something about the looks of the streets and the stores, the landscape and the freshness of the air, the look on the faces, the flatness of the voices, the intonation of the words, and above all, in the taste of the food – fried chicken, cole slaw, and apple pie – that is unlike any other part of the country and definitely spells OHIO.”
After graduating from Ohio State in 1915, Lenski moved to New York City to study art. She worked composing verses and painting watercolors for greeting cards, and she took an illustration class at the School of Industrial Art from Arthur Covey, whom she would marry in 1921.
During the 1920s, Lenski developed her talents for drawing people and landscapes by illustrating children’s books written by other authors, such as Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days. Finding it hard to be sympathetic to a story written by another person, she determined to try her hand at writing her own stories to accompany her drawings.
After the success of Skipping Village and A Little Girl of 1900, Lenski started producing a prolific amount of books for children. She was driven by not only the strong work ethic that her parents instilled in her, but also because she wanted to create books that children would love, enjoy, and help shape their lives. Keeping the text simple, she relied on illustrations to tell the rest of the story.
Lenski’s young son, Stephen, inspired her Mr. Small books, in which young readers lived vicariously through the cheerful character who finds himself as an engineer, a pilot, a farmer, a fireman and a cowboy, among other vocations. The “Davy” series of books were inspired by David Chisholm, Lenski’s step-grandson, who stayed with her during the summers of 1943, 1944 and 1945. The 1940s were also when Lenski started researching and writing her series of regional books, for which she earned a reputation as a pioneering writer who immersed herself in people’s lives to write her stories.
Since 1922, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, presents the Newbery Medal to an author for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Two of Lenski’s meticulously researched historical novels were named as Newbery Honor Books: Phebe Fairchild: Her Book in 1937…
…and Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison in 1942.
In 1946, Lenski received the John Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl, a regional novel she was inspired to write after seeing children and adults picking strawberries in a Plant City, Florida field. For weeks, Lenski went to roadside stands and talked to farmers and their families, sketching them as they worked.
Lenski died September 11, 1974 and is buried in Clearwater, Florida, where her gravestone reads, “Lois Lenski Covey, Friend of Children.”
The Anna Community Branch of the Shelby County Libraries has a sizeable collection of Lenski memorabilia, including original drawings and early manuscripts which Lenski gave to the Amos Library in Sidney when it was dedicated in 1958. The library is located at 304 N. Second St. in Anna; a historical marker recognizing Lenski’s accomplishments was placed outside in 2003.
For more on Lois Lenski, see her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood, and “My Ohioana Beginnings,” an article she wrote for the Spring 1970 issue of the Ohioana Quarterly.
The Lois Lenski Collection at Capital University’s Blackmore Library includes many first editions of Lenski’s books, as well as 75 boxes of manuscript and autobiographical material, including original illustrations and book dummies, notebooks, sketchbooks, and diaries. An appointment is necessary to look at items in this non-circulating collection.