In 1943, Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House won the Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book published in 1942. It is the story of a little house in the country surrounded by trees, birds, and fields of flowers. As the years pass, the big city, originally set miles away over the hills, expands and engulfs the little house, which bye and bye sits abandoned, surrounded by skyscrapers, with subways rumbling beneath it and elevated trains clickity-clacking past its front door. Finally, a descendent of the original builder discovers that the little house belonged to her family, and she has it moved back into the country where once again it enjoys the trees, birds, and fields of flowers.
Although this may seem a statement on the unhappy results of unchecked urban growth and the blessedness of the rural life, Burton claimed her primary goal in writing this book was to convey the idea of historical perspective and the passage of time in terms a young reader could understand.1 Pictures of the rising and setting of the sun signify the passing hours of the day. The waxing and waning moon suggests the succession of days of the month. Four pages depicting the rotation of the seasons demonstrate the evanescence of the year. Once this rhythm of hours, days, months, and seasons is established, Burton continues to illustrate the flow of time by depicting the city's growth through the decades with the development of transportation, paved streets, skyscrapers, and an exploding population.
An artistic goal of Burton's was to fully integrate the text and pictures, and The Little House was one of the earliest picture books to incorporate the type as a visual design element on the double page spread. For example, on the first page, the text fills in the widening sidewalk as it moves from the narrow front door towards the reader whose perspective is from the road in front of the house. In her Caldecott Award acceptance speech, Burton said that she tried to work the typography of the text into the overall pattern of the page. "Many times," she admits, "I sacrificed the length of the text or added to it to make it fit the design."2 To sacrifice articulation to the flow of the design indicates that Burton felt the visual message of the book was more important than the textual message, which was, indeed, her point of view. "If the page is well drawn and finely designed," she says, "the child reader will acquire a sense of good design which will lead to an appreciation of beauty and the development of good taste. Primitive man," she notes, "thought in pictures, not in words, and this visual conception is far more fundamental than its sophisticated translation into verbal modes of thought."3
Copyright 2006© Rita Smith
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