This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Lee Burton’s classic picture book The Little House, the 1943 Caldecott Medal winner. To say that illustrator John Rocco is excited about his new picture book about Burton (1909-1968), her life and her work is an understatement.
Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker (author of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site) and illustrated by Rocco, is a passion project, one he enthusiastically tells me about via phone.
The new book is focused on the “big machines” of Burton’s work that her two young sons loved the most: the locomotive in Choo Choo; Mary Anne from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel; Katy, the tractor from Katy and the Big Snow; and the titular vehicle from Maybelle the Cable Car. This, Rocco explains, was Rinker’s smart way of encapsulating some of Burton’s best-known books. However, the Little House of Burton’s award-winning 1942 book—the story of a cottage that becomes surrounded by an encroaching, bustling city—is a part of Big Machines as well. Rocco sees Burton, known by friends and family as Jinnee, as a stand-in for the little house itself.
“How she felt about her life was the story of The Little House,” Rocco says. “When they first bought their home in Folly Cove, it was too close to the road. So, they picked it up and moved it back away from the road. They wanted to be more secluded. I think that was the genesis of the idea of The Little House.” If you look at the cover of The Little House, Rocco explains, the house is surrounded by daisies. In Big Machines, Rocco gives Jinnee a skirt with the same flowers. “She is the Little House!”
The Folly Cove that Rocco speaks of was Jinnee and her family’s rural home in Cape Ann on Massachusetts Bay. Here, in the early 20th century, Jinnee created her books, raised her sons, gardened, tended animals, hosted friends and taught art, design and block printing in a group called the Folly Cove Designers. Rinker lays it all out in Big Machines, describing Jinnee as “quite magical” as she works and plays at her seaside home.
Like many people, Rocco is taken by the creative powerhouse that Jinnee was. “Can you imagine her day-to-day life?” he asks. “She’s making books; she’s raising her kids; they’ve got sheep [and other] animals they’ve got to take care of; they’re doing all the daily in-and-out of life; and then she hosted all these parties. She was a dancer, and she was always making costumes and putting on performances. It was full tilt.”
Both Rocco and Rinker spent time with Jinnee’s children and their families, including her son, Aris, a sculptor who lives in Santa Barbara, California. “He had boxes and boxes of Jinnee’s work,” Rocco recalls. “Her sketchbooks, her drawings, the linoleum woodblocks with all the Folly Cove designs. Tons of stuff. I remember I was rifling through the boxes, as carefully as I could with all my excitement, and came across the book dummy for The Little House in something like a cardboard box. Sherri and I were both kind of freaking out, having a blast.”
Showing Aris the book dummy for Big Machines, with Rocco’s illustrations, was a similar thrill. “Aris was beside himself. . . . When I brought him some of the art, he said, ‘Man, it’s like Jinnee is right here in the room.’”
Rocco says he was given “total freedom” to explore what the illustrations would be. “It took me a while to find the sort of visual through-line,” he says. He was also given the option to reproduce Jinnee’s artwork in the book but was not interested. “This book is not a biography, so much as it is a celebration of her art, and so I was thinking we should celebrate it in a new way.”
Readers see Jinnee in constant motion in the book—much as she was in her life—and as a woman who made the world magical for her children. “I didn’t want to draw her sitting at a desk, making pictures with her two kids looking over her shoulder,” Rocco says. “I wanted her to move in space and show her gracefulness.”
Conscious of doing his best to represent her artwork while also trying to avoid merely copying it, Rocco kept his deep appreciation for her work at the center of his mind. “Where appropriate, I would emulate her style for the different books,” he says. “I laid out the text in the way that Jinnee always did, which was to really have it flow. That was always important to her. You can see from her early book dummies that every line of text was cut out in a separate little strip of paper, and she’d move them around, trying to get the right design.” Capturing her style while still making the artwork his own was “tricky, obviously, because she has a different style than me, but I was pretty pleased with the way it came out.”
Just as the little house—surrounded by all those big machines—comes to life, so does Jinnee, quite magically.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.