Lois Lenski Biography
I. Lois Lenski’s occupation and her well-known works
Lois Lenski (1893-1974) dedicated her life to authoring and illustrating books for children. Her name is synonymous with many works that have the ability to make adults sigh with nostalgia. With a passion for children and a talent for illustrating, Lois Lenski entertained and communicated with children across the country. During the 20th century, Lenski produced countless books such as: Judy’s Journey, her Davy series, Blue Ridge Billy, and Bayou Suzette to name only a few. Her popular regional series represented the lives of American children in specific geographic locations, racial groups, or economic situations. She also wrote poetry, plays, and songs. Her works were aimed towards young and older children. By far, her most famous work is Strawberry Girl , which won a Newberry Medal in 1946. Another notable work is The Life I Live (1964), about which she said, “Into it has gone a lifetime of love and devotion to children.”
II. Lenski’s early life and education
Lois Lenski grew up in the small town of Anna, Ohio with a minister for a father and a dedicated homemaker for her mother. She had a pleasant childhood and spent much time drawing and reading. She enrolled at Ohio State University and was prepared to take up a degree in teaching. Along with education courses, she took art classes. Lenski graduated in 1915. Lenski was convinced by her art teachers to deviate from the career expected from her. Taking a risk, she moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League of New York. Lenski survived off of a low budget but happily met her husband, Arthur Covey while in NYC. Arthur had two children already, so Lenski had to balance career and family. Lenski spent much of the 1920’s honing her skills as an artist and working on developing her figure drawings. She illustrated for other children’s books but only tried writing and illustrating a children’s book of her own on the urgings of her publisher. She published her first book, Skipping Village, in 1927. In 1929, Lois gave birth to her son, Stephen. Soon after, the family moved to Connecticut where Lenski published her Mr. Small series and historical books. Into the 1940s, Lois’ health began to decline. Her doctor advised her to leave Connecticut, so she began to spend her winters in Louisiana and Florida. Lenski visited many different people and places to research material for new books during this time. It was then that she began her regional book series, starting with Bayou Suzette in 1943. 16 more regional books were written over the next twenty years including Strawberry Girl. She also wrote her Davy series, which were a series of picture books. In 50s and 60s, Lois came out with her Roundabout books, which were similar to her regional books but geared towards a younger audience. When Lenski’s illness returned in the 50s, Lois and Arthur began to spend half of the year in Tarpon Springs, FL. In 1960, Arthur passed away after two years of poor health. In 1964, Lois sold her Greenacres farm in Connecticut and began to live full-time in Florida. She published her autobiography in 1972. Finally, in 1974, at the ripe age of 80, Lois Lenski passed away in Florida at her home.
III. Lenski’s well-known works
It is Lenski’s books that truly transcend time and captivate readers even today. The research that Lenski conducted for her regional series truly makes her stand out as an author and illustrator. To make these books, Lenski underwent a sort of intensive immersion in each region or cultural group. She would talk to all sorts of people and sit unnoticed, sketching and developing characters and plot lines from what she saw around her. Lenski took careful notes, photographs, and sketches to document her experiences with these unique people. Because of Lenski’s meticulous methods for researching, we are able to get a snapshot of the time period and cultural implications surrounding the types of children in each specific region at the time. For the Lois Lenski exhibition in Special Collections, the regional books of the South are the main focus. The Museum Object class has chosen Bayou Suzette, Strawberry Girl, and Judy’s Journey from her regional series. The class has also chosen We Live in the Country from her Roundabout series and Florida, My Florida (a collection of poems published by FSU Press).
Bayou Suzette (1943)- Set in Louisiana. The story of a white girl, Suzette and Merteel, an Indian orphan. Their friendship grows throughout the book. Together, they are able survive a flood. The bayou country comes alive with Lenski’s colorful depictions.
Strawberry Girl (1945)- Won the 1946 Newberry Award. Set in Florida. Tells the story of Birdie Boyer and her family, who establishd a strawberry farm. The family has to learn to deal with their quarrels with their neighbors, the Slatters.
Judy’s Journey (1947)- Set in the South and along the East Coast. A depiction of Judy and her family, who are first sharecroppers down South, then migrant workers. Finally, the family travels all up the East Coast to follow the crops. Details the hard lives of migrant workers.
We Live in the Country (1960)- Set in Connecticut, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. Part of her Roundabout series for a younger audience. Lenski shows the rural life of four children in four different states. Cathy lives on a New England chicken farm, Jinny on a cotton farm, Rosita, a lamb farm, and Jesse on a lumber farm.
Florida, My Florida (1971)- a collection of poems about Florida
IV. Lenski’s Southern books and her regional series.
Although Lois Lenski spent most of her life in the North, she always harbored a fondness for the rustic and timeless lifestyle of the American South. A true and honest portrayal of life’s challenges is a hallmark of the Lenski writing style, and she continued this distinction throughout her descriptions of life in the South. Although other children’s book authors winced at depicting the deep structural and societal issues inherent to the American South, Lois Lenski jumped at the opportunity in her regional series. Historical problems such as white and black racial divides as a legacy of slavery, and economic decimation as a legacy of the South’s defeat during the Civil War, were confronted and laid bare in Lenski’s regional series of the South.
Books such as: Bayou Suzette (1943), Newbery medal winning Strawberry Girl (1945), Blueridge Billy (1946), Judy’s Journey (1947), Cotton In My Sack (1949), Texas Tomboy (1950), and Houseboat Girl (1957) describe the unique hardships of growing up in such Southern states as: Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. These books mainly describe the rural lifestyles of sharecroppers, tenants, indebted farmers, and migrant workers living on the border of poverty. Lenski often tried to encompass the realistic everyday lives of lower class people. She had an uncanny ability to convey these people’s hopes, dreams, aspirations, and daily needs in an uncertain world. Although her descriptions at times may not be pretty, her candid scenes of life’s little victories and challenges for these disadvantaged families earned Lenski a warm affection spot in many American hearts.
Another notable aspect of Lois Lenski's regional books was her inclusion of Native American life. Lenski included such works in her regional series such as Little Sioux Girl (1958). She also wrote Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941), the story of a white girl who was captured by Native Americans and lived among them for a period of time. Lois Lenski was ahead of her time to consider the stories of the Native Americans. Many of her illustrations were the first to portray authentic Native life. Her respect and acknowledgment of their culture parallels FSU's respect for Seminole heritage.
V. Lenski’s legacy.
During her fifty-year career, Lois Lenski provided a refreshing and tasteful realism to the genre of children’s books. Her truthful and unapologetic style produced many classics in children’s literature. She enthusiastically tackled areas and subjects long neglected in writing for children, especially in her confrontation of longstanding social issues in the regional series on life in the South. Lenski sincerely believed that children’s books should not be limited to simple bedtime stories or lofty poems, but rather they should illuminate the whole adventure of living. Many of her books focus in on regions of the country she experienced first-hand. Lois met and wrote about children in poor, rural communities underrepresented in children’s literature in a sensible way. Her legacy is one of kindness, wonder, and understanding. Lenski once said “Life is full of amazing drama if we have the awareness to see and understand it”.