A couple of weeks ago, we featured Betsy and Tacy: Mankato’s Most Famous Citizens about the “the enduring friendship between two girls growing up in small-town America.” These popular children’s books were written by Minnesota native Maud Hart Lovelace.
The first four of these books were illustrated by Ohio native Lois Lenski ((October 14, 1893 – September 11, 1974). During her early career, she also illustrated new editions of two stories by author Kenneth Grahame, best known for writing Wind in the Willows.
At first, though, Ms. Lenski aspired to be a fine artist. Both her oil paintings and watercolors have been displayed in New York galleries.
The fourth of five children, Ms. Lenski was born in Springfield, Ohio. She graduated from a Sydney, Ohio high school. After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in with a B.S. in education and a minor in fine arts, she studied at the Art Students League and the School of Industrial Art, both in New York, and the Westminster School of Art in London, England.
Ms. Lenski was in her mid-thirties, married to a widower with two children, when Helen Dean Fish, known as a pioneering children’s book editor, encouraged her to write and illustrate her own stories.
Ms. Lenski’s inspiration came from various sources. In her autobiography, she described her childhood in a small town as “simple, sincere, and wholesome,” Her first historical novel, Phebe Fairchild: Her Book, was written after she had lived several years in Connecticut.
Ms. Lenski was awarded the Newberry Honor award for this story and also for Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison and Strawberry Girl.
Other awards include the Ohioana Book Award for Juvenile Literature for Bayou Suzette (1943) and the Children’s Book Award for Judy’s Journey (1947).
Ms. Lenski is also known for her “Mr. Small” series, inspired by watching her son Stephen play with his toys. She realized he wasn’t imagining the toys as “being alive” but he was imagining himself as driving his toy car or sailing his boat.
In later years, Ms. Lenski moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida for health reasons. Noting the regional differences between the Midwest, New England, and the Sunshine State, she was inspired to write her Regional series so that children could read about life in various areas of the United States.
“We need to know our country better. We need to know not only our own region,where our roots are firmly put down, but other regions where people different from ourselves—people of different races, faiths, cultures and backgrounds…..When we know them, understand how they live and why, we will think of them as ‘people’—human beings like ourselves.”
The Lois Lenski Covey Foundation, established in 1967, honors this award-winning author by advancing literacy efforts and fostering a love of reading.
“Material in italics is from Lois’s Newbery Award acceptance speech delivered on June 18, 1946 at the 65th annual conference of the American Library Association in Buffalo, New York; and subsequently printed in The Horn Book Magazine of July 1946.” See Lenski Biography.
- Betsy-Tacy cover image: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48897280
- Ms. Lenski’s high school graduation photo: By Unknown – https://www.flickr.com/photos/31846825@N04/23899712273, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47251411
- Strawberry Girl cover image: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31475225
- Lois Lenski’s Writing Studio: Lois Lenski Covey Foundation