- Lois Lenski, Storycatcher by Bobbie Malone
Five decades of America's twentieth century come alive in this readable, meticulously researched, and well-documented first full-length biography of Newbery Award–winning children's author-illustrator Lois Lenski. Historian and educator Bobbie Malone traces the evolution of Lenski's work and ties her determination to create her art to the economic and social realities that surrounded women and educational movements, especially between the 1920s and the 1960s. Malone's narrative proves that Lenski, a talented and energetic documentarian of American life who was part of the 1920s surge in children's book publishing, aimed to promote empathy and a sense of social justice in young readers.
Malone follows Lenski from her 1893 birth in Ohio to her death in 1974, framing the author's achievements in the context of women's expected place in American society. After earning an education degree, Lenski refused a teaching [End Page 204] job and instead went to New York City in 1915, where she lived at a Young Women's Christian Association branch for women interested in the arts. In 1921, at the age of twenty-seven, she married her mentor, muralist and illustrator Arthur Sinclair Covey, whose first wife had died soon after giving birth to their second child. Throughout the book, Malone describes Lenski's fulfilling life wherein she quietly contested her domestic roles and worked tirelessly to realize her professional dreams. As her husband's painting commissions dissipated during the Great Depression, Lenski became the primary breadwinner, but she never claimed that title herself. In her autobiography and in her letters to friends, Lenski shared that her husband expressed no interest in her books. Yet she pressed on and managed her own professional affairs, earned money from magazines with perfect-mother-myth satirical essays after she bore a son at age thirty-five, networked for field research, and published and illustrated one hundred books.
Lenski's fine illustrations for her own and other writers' children's books added to her success, but it was her respectful portrayals of diverse ethnic groups and working-class families—including migrant laborers, sharecroppers, and coal miners—that broke new ground. Determined to provide a realistic view of America, Lenski wrote Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941), an acclaimed historical novel for middle-grade readers that gave an "alternative perspective of Anglo-American Manifest Destiny" with its sympathetic portrayal of Native culture (p. 130). The book started Lenski on the path to writing her American Regional series and Roundabout America series. She wrote while living among everyday people around the country and learning local cultural traditions, work rituals, and dialects, catching stories that became, for instance, Bayou Suzette (1943), Strawberry Girl (1945), and Corn-Farm Boy (1954). Lenski's collaboration with teachers and schoolchildren developed into "'invitational writing'" as she responded to people's requests to "write about them and their region" (p. 166). Lenski conducted extensive research and sometimes included too much historical detail for her editor's taste. Nevertheless, she created books that teachers used in social studies curricula in upper elementary grades to help readers understand the importance of place in people's lives.
Malone gives a balanced view of Lenski's work, citing negative reviews and sharing honest assessments of Lenski's unsuccessful books. Malone talked to librarians, educators, children's literature scholars, Lenski's family members, and people who were involved with Lenski's field research as children. She read the papers that Lenski left to more than two dozen libraries and archival repositories around the United States. By analyzing Lenski's influences and by including photographs and illustrations, Malone's chronological study presents Lenski as a forward-thinking American artist in her time. Historians as well as scholars and enthusiasts of children's literature will find this book insightful, and biographers and children's book authors can learn much from the writing and research methods of both Malone and her subject, whose inclusive ideas about democracy influenced generations. [End Page 205...