Simple Stories … or Are They?

Small family houseI don’t remember when I first read The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, but the idea of a house with feelings didn’t seem that far-fetched to me. Maybe it was my age.

According to Christine Lundberg, a producer and filmmaker who’s been active in cultural arts media for over 20 years, Burton was “one of the most significant and groundbreaking children’s book author/illustrators of the 20th century. Her classic books have never been out of print and are currently embraced by a fourth generation of early readers.”

I chose Burton as this month’s author not only because she was born in the month of August (birth month is one of the criteria for each author I’ve chosen to feature this year), but because I had a personal connection with at least one of her books.

Also because I see her as someone who can inspire any type of writer, especially when it comes to giving her audiences stories they really want.

Whether you write stories for kids or stories for “big people” – through content marketing like blog posts, case studies, or eBooks – knowing how to truly connect with audiences is a talent that can only lead to success.

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Virginia Lee Burton, born on August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, was nicknamed “Jinnee” as a child. Her mother was a lyric poet and artist from England, and her father was an engineer. When she was around 8 years old, her family moved to California (first San Diego, then Carmel) for her mother’s health.

Following years of art and dance lessons, Burton landed a state scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. But one year later, in 1928, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts to be near her father and sister.

In the fall of 1930, she enrolled in a Saturday morning drawing class taught by sculptor George Demetrios. Less than six months later, they married and eventually moved to the Folly Cove neighborhood of Gloucester.

After becoming the mother of two boys, Burton decided to try her hand at writing and illustrating a children’s book. However, her first attempt didn’t go so well. When the manuscript (a story about a speck of dust) was rejected by 13 publishers, she finally decided to try it out on her 3½-year-old son. He went to sleep before she could even finish the story.

From then on, she said she always tested her ideas on her children first. “I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest. Children are very frank critics.”

A few years later, in 1937, Burton’s second attempt at getting a book published was successful. Choo Choo is the story of a rebellious little engine that wants to show off, runs away and, ultimately, learns an important lesson. Two years later, in 1939, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was published. (Burton dedicated the first book to her oldest son and the second to her younger son.)

Two years later, in 1941, Burton came out with a book that she hoped would give her boys an alternative to the comic books they always seemed to be reading. Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker was written in comic strip format and was filled with adventure.

And one year after being published in 1942, The Little House was awarded the Caldecott Medal. (This book was dedicated to “Dorgie,” the name Burton’s boys gave their dad.)

Universal Themes

Universal themes can be seen in all seven of Burton’s books, although the last three – Katy and the Big SnowMaybelle the Cable Car, and Life Story – were nowhere near as popular as the earlier ones. Teachers and librarians still use Burton’s books to teach history, language skills, problem solving, and even environmental awareness.

Creativity Lives On

Burton’s dedication to enriching her sons’ lives through good literature could be one reason both are now so successful in their professions.

Aristides, the oldest, is a sculptor of both figurative and abstract works, ranging from large commissions to private pieces. Michael, the younger one, was president of Marine World Africa USA for over 20 years and was involved with its relocation to Vallejo, California.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Seeing the “big picture,” thinking “outside the box,” a desire to enrich others’ lives

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The Little House  (1942)  by Virginia Lee Burton

The “rosy-pink Little House” that sits on a hill surrounded by apple trees begins to notice, as years go by, the slow encroachment of city lights, big buildings, and horseless carriages.

The sad part, when “her family moves out and she finds herself alone in the middle of the city,” turns to joy when a “woman recognizes her and whisks her back to the country where she belongs.” Burton’s illustrations are great.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel  (1939)  by Virginia Lee Burton

This may not have won a Caldecott Medal like The Little House did, but it’s a winner all the same. Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, are in danger of being replaced by modern diesel- and gas-powered equipment. The story’s ending (a good one, by the way) is completely unexpected but very satisfying.

5 Ways to Bond with Your Blog’s Audience”  by Henneke Duistermaat

Just as Burton learned how to connect with her audience (children), there are methods out there to help you connect with your own audience better.

Two ways to help you “engage with readers, make them feel at home, and turn your blog into a nice and warm get-together” are by: using metaphors and creating a common enemy.

11 Ways to Think Outside the Box”  by Dustin Wax

“Thinking outside the box,” says the author, “starts well before we’re ‘boxed in’ ….” Several of these tips are the same as ones I mentioned in my series on creativity four years ago, but some are new: study another industry, turn it upside down, work backwards, take a shower.

(Working backwards from one of my goals is something a business coach is now having me do. It works!)

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“Reek of honest humanity” is what online copywriting expert Nick Usborne says in his book, Net Words (2002). He says you must “put yourself into the copy you write.” In other words, write as though you’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone.

People are very sensitive to tone of voice when they read content on the Web. If they suspect your sincerity in the slightest, or if they think you’re “talking down to them,” you will lose all credibility … and possibly any future chance of connecting with them again.

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It is the essence of genius to make use of the simplest ideas.”     – Charles Péguy


This article originally ran in the August 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

This entry was posted in Books, Creativity, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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