Highlights of a Life
Lois Lenski was born in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1893, as the fourth of five children. Her father, a Prussian immigrant, was a Lutheran pastor, and her mother, of Franklin County, Ohio, was a teacher. When she was five years old the family moved to Anna, Ohio. “I still remember the story that Anna had a population of 200, and when we came, it increased to 207!” said Lois in “My Ohio Childhood,” a story she wrote to accompany a display of her books at the Sidney Public Library, when she was their Representative Author in 1952.
Lois fondly remembered the parsonage in Anna. “No house could have been a more ideal place for children to grow up in. As I see it now in my memory… it resembles nothing so much as a ‘story-book house.’ It was old when we came and had been built-onto many times. It has a phenomenal number of outside doors—twenty-one, I think. There were ever so many porches, all trimmed with jigsaw scroll work.
“Life in a small town in Ohio before the First World War was simple, sincere and wholesome. One cannot look back on it now, in 1952, without a feeling of real nostalgia, for one knows it has gone never to return….My childhood was indeed a fortunate one. I am glad to have been a child in horse-and-buggy days, and to have known and felt the joys of real peace and security.”
As a child Lois was constantly sketching, and she won prizes for her work at the local county fair. But when she went to high school in neighboring Sidney, she excelled in English. As a senior, Lois’ fellow pupils voted her the one who had spoken the best “every-day English” throughout the year. Her English teacher, Miss Sharpe, wrote in a letter: “I hope you will specialize in English in college; for I feel sure you will do some form of creative work.”
Finding Art at Ohio State
In 1911, Lois’ father returned to Capital University, his alma mater, as a professor, taking the family with him to Columbus. Since Capital wasn’t coeducational, Lois attended The Ohio State University. She majored in Education with a minor in Fine Arts. “There was no Art at Sidney High while I was there,” Lois wrote, “so my real instruction did not begin until I entered Ohio State University.” In reference to the letter from Miss Sharpe, she said, “Like most young people, I felt I knew more than my teacher. When I got to Ohio State, I disregarded her advice and did not specialize in English. Instead, I took all the Art I could get!”
Ohio State did not satisfy her appetite for art, however. After graduation, Lois resisted her parents’ wishes and did not become a teacher. Instead, like many other Ohioana Authors, she went to New York City. She studied art for four more years at the Art Students’ League. In an illustration class she met Arthur Covey, a muralist to whom she soon became an assistant. In 1920, she went to London to study for a year at the Westminster School of Art.
Marriage and Children
Lois returned to the United States in 1921 and married Arthur Covey soon after. She became the stepmother of his children: Margaret, 12, and Laird, 5. Always enthusiastic about children, she welcomed the new family. In her acceptance speech for the Children’s Collection Medallion, she said: “When I married, I came into a family in which there already were children and that was one of the main attractions of the new home.” Lois gave birth to a son of her own, Stephen, in 1929, just before the family moved to a century-old farmhouse in Connecticut, called “Greenacres.”
A New Approach to Writing
Lois Lenski began illustrating several children’s books, including the Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Then one editor suggested that she write her own stories to accompany her illustrations, an idea she took to because she acknowledges in her autobiography that she often “found it hard to be sympathetic to a story written by another person.” Thus, writing her own stories fit well with her artistic creativity. Lenski published her first written and illustrated book, Skipping Village, in 1927. Her second book, A Little Girl of 1900, was published in 1928. Both of these books are autobiographical, based on her childhood in Ohio; Skipping Village is a fictional name for Anna, Ohio.
As her son Stephen grew, Lois watched him play and created books to suit him. She noticed that while he and his friends played with toy trucks and trains and planes, they did not give the vehicles personalities. They identified more with the drivers and operators of the vehicles. This inspired her to create the Mr. Small series, with a versatile hero who becomes aviator, sailor, engineer, farmer, fireman, cowboy, policeman, and father. In most of the books relatively little happens—Mr. Small simply operates a machine or vehicle in a “day-in-the-life” kind of story.
Stories about Daily Life
Lois Lenski applied this “day-in-the-life” approach to many of her books. She recognized that the world was moving quickly and that children’s lives were very different from what they had been in her generation. Her Connecticut farmhouse, built in 1790, was the inspiration for her first historical novel, Phebe Fairchild. Lenski wanted to write the story of the house and how people had lived during the 1830s. In Journey Into Childhood, she stated her goal: to “describe the everyday life of people in a given period, to tell what they thought, felt, said, and did, how they got their food, shelter, and clothing.” In other words, she wanted to present children with “days-in-the-life” stories in different time periods from their own. She carefully researched her novels, basing them on recorded history.
In addition to daily life in different time periods, Lois Lenski began to write about different regions of the United States, regions that weren’t covered in other popular children’s books. Her travels from Connecticut to winter homes in the South revealed a wide variety of patterns in family life, environment, background, and occupations. Unlike time periods of the past, Lois could actually live for a while in the specific locations that she wrote about, and this first-hand experience gave her insight into the peculiar characteristics of each region and the children who lived there.
Stories For and About Children
Children held a pivotal place in Lois’ heart, however, and it was children about whom she wanted to write. In her 1969 Children’s Collection Medallion acceptance speech she said:
“After I started my regionals, I began to get my orders. “Come here and write about us. We’re a part of America. We want to be put in a book.” And so I began to hop, skip, and jump with them… wherever there were children. And wherever I went the children were my hosts and always made me welcome. They followed me like puppy dogs… I always had a dozen guards along with me to tell me where to go or where not to go.
“They began to look at me as some kind of helpless individual, and it was just their business to help me. They did everything. They brought me sandwiches and cold drinks. They fanned the mosquitoes away… I traveled about with a whole retinue in tow, and oh how candid they were. They told me when my slip was showing, and they told me when I had a run in my stocking.
“They answered all my stupid questions… They told me all their secrets. In fact, they poured out their lives for me. What more could any author ask?”
Indeed, as the regional series became popular, Lois Lenski traveled around the United States, usually at the invitation of children or adults from those regions. She received the Newbery Medal in 1946 for Strawberry Girl, a portrait of life in Florida in its pioneer days, before it became a boom state for tourists and developers. In her acceptance speech she said: “Only when we truly see others as ourselves, can we hope to have a world in which all men are brothers.” She is noted for her realistic depictions of children and daily life, resisting fantasy, stereotype, and idealization. Her writing style is matter-of-fact and methodical, imparting a sense of order and security, perhaps something Lois Lenski found missing for children of modern generations.
Lois won numerous awards, including the coveted Newbery Medal, honorary doctorates, and Children’s Collection Medallions. In every award acceptance speech, she thanked children for sharing their lives and their abundant gifts with her.
Lenski wrote and illustrated prolifically, publishing more than ninety books for children. But she claimed to love her work so much that it wasn’t work at all. “I never worked and I never will,” she wrote in a Letter to Boys and Girls. When her husband, Arthur Covey, died in 1960, she moved permanently to Tarpon Springs, Florida. Lois continued writing in her later years, and she published her autobiography in 1972. In September, 1974, Lois Lenski died at home, but her books continue to live in the hands and hearts of children and those who love them.