Lois Lenski may have imagined that she lacked in technical ability she
made up for in determination and hard work. The burgeoning children’s book
field welcomed her with open arms. During a career which lasted over 50
years, she illustrated over 100 books, many of which she wrote herself.
Lois Lenski was born in Springfield, Ohio on October 14, 1893, the same year as Wanda Gág. Her father, Richard Charles Henry Lenski, was a Lutheran minister and her mother, Marietta Young, was a school teacher. She grew up in the small town of Anna and learned to love the country life. She was exposed to the joys of reading at a young age. Her parents subscribed to many of the major magazines of the day and their library included many of the children’s classics.
Lenski’s third grade teacher noticed that she liked to draw:
“Under her direction in the Anna school, I traced pictures of pretty flowers from seed catalogs, and painted them with watercolors. I had only a twenty-five-cent box of Prang paints until 1907, when the fresco artist for the new church then being built, came from Lima, Ohio, to stay with us. He told my father, ‘This child has talent. She needs a better box of paints.’ So my father gave him three dollars and with it he bought me a Windsor Newton watercolor box at Lima. It had twenty or so colors and he said it would last a lifetime. It nearly did, being replaced only once.”Unfortunately, most of her artwork as a child was copying magazine covers:
“What a pity that no one told me to just draw all the things around me, to draw everything that I saw, instead of copying other pictures. I had no idea ‘how to be original’ and it was many years before I learned. All the pictures I drew or painted before I was fifteen were copies. I did not begin the study of art until I went to college.”Education
Lenski attended Ohio State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education in 1915. While there, she also took a few art courses. Much to her parents dismay, she did not become a teacher but instead, on the encouragement of an instructor from Ohio State, moved to New York and received a scholarship to study at the Art Students’ League. She studied there from 1915 to 1920, working odd jobs to support herself. One of her jobs was hand-lettering greeting cards for the Norcross Company where she worked with Helen Sewell. During one summer, she taught crafts at a girls’ camp in Pike, New Hampshire.
While at the League, she took illustration classes at night at the School of Industrial Art, taught by Arthur Covey, a well-known mural painter. The next year, she was asked to be his assistant while he painted murals for department stores.
She studied at the Westminster School of Art in London from 1920 to 1921 and then spent several months in Italy. Two weeks after her return from Europe, she married Arthur Covey, a widower with two young children.
The period of time after World War I was an important growth period for children’s books. Publishers were starting to add departments and editors specifically for children’s books. Lenski visited all of them with her portfolio and eventually, her persistence paid off.
While still at the Art Students’ League, she illustrated her first book, a coloring book of nursery rhyme figures, Children’s Frieze Book, commissioned by Platt & Munk for $100. In London, she illustrated three storybooks, The Golden Age, Dream Days and Green-Faced Frog for John Lane of Bodley Head.
When Lenski returned home from Europe, she continued to illustrate books for other authors until one art director, Helen Dean Fish of Stokes, lamented the fact that although she like Lenski’s drawings, Fish had no work for her. It was at Fish’s suggestion that Lenski tried writing her own stories. This suited Lenski for her “writing and drawing dovetailed ideally.” The result was her first book as author/illustrator, Skipping Village, published in 1927.
Although she had started to write and illustrate books, her desire was to be a painter. An individual exhibit of her work featuring her oil paintings was held at Weyhe Gallery in New York City in 1927. Weyhe Gallery was well known for discovering talented new artists. Another individual showing of her work, featuring her watercolors, was held in 1932 at the Ferargils Gallery also in New York City.
The year 1929 brought a new baby to the Covey family, Stephen, who clearly influenced Lenski’s decision to do picture books. Her book, The Little Family, was dedicated to “S. C. and age 3” in 1932. As Stephen grew, she noticed that he and his friends liked to play ‘auto,’ so she wrote The Little Auto in 1934. It was to be the start of her Mr. Small series. Stephen not only became her inspiration, but also her ‘censor-critic-advisor-and-editor.’ Her Davy books were inspired by another little boy who came to live with her while his mother was ill.
Despite the fact that Lenski did some lovely picture books, she is best known as the author and illustrator of two series of books—the historical series and the regional series, both for older children. The novels for the historical series, seven in all, were painstakingly researched and depicted events, customs and attitudes of the time period. Because the historical novels were such a large undertaking, she would often work on one of her picture books at the same time for her own pleasure.
While the historical novels were researched in the library, Lenski yearned for some real-life research. For the regional novels, Lenski lived among her subjects in order to develop her characters and examine their economic and social lives. In these eighteen novels, she focused on the poorer levels of American society and depicted real people. Many times, a subject was chosen based on the letters and invitations from school children. Her Roundabout series were shorter stories similar to the regionals, but geared for younger children.
Poor health required Lenski to spend her winters in Florida. After Mr. Covey, her husband, died in 1960, she spent most of her time in Florida and died there on September 11, 1974. Before she died, at the requests of many educators and librarians, in 1972 she wrote her autobiography, Journey into Childhood, to answer all of their questions.
Over the years, Lenski has
won many awards. Three of her books were singled out by the American Library
Association, Phebe Fairchild: Her Book was a Newbery
Honor Book in 1937, Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison
was a Newbery
Honor Book in 1942 and Bayou Suzette won a John
Newbery Medal in 1946.
Influence, Style and Technique
Like most art students, Lenski spent many hours in the museums of New York, London and Italy. She enjoyed Italian painters, particularly the work of Puvis de Chavannes.
Because she didn’t start to study art until college, she always felt that her peers had a head start. Knowing that her drawing skills were not at the level they should be, should took every opportunity to she could to draw in her sketchbook.
Her process for working on a picture book was to make sketches in a dummy of the appropriate size and then color it. After the dummy was approved, she would draw the illustrations on 3-ply bristol board at one-third larger than the printed page. Next she would provide color overlays to show color placement. She would also supply the design for the title page, cover, and jacket including hand lettering. The regional story illustrations were graphite drawings, done on 3-ply bristol board and were reproduced by the halftone offset process. The Roundabout illustrations were ink drawings, reproduced by letterpress.
Of her decision to marry Arthur Covey and become step-mother to his two young children, she wrote:
“Do not think that I intend to give up ‘my career’ as you call it. I intend to go on with my work much the same, but I hope to prove that a woman (or at least this one woman) can do two jobs at once!!! However, I may fail, I know that, and I am prepared for it, but I am willing to risk it. I know I am taking on the hardest job that any woman can possibly take on, but I believe all my sacrifices will have equal recompense.”Good intentions aside, Lenski found illustrating and writing books, while raising a family to be tiring. She happened to complain about it one day and was surprised to receive an unsympathetic reply from her husband. “Your job is the home and the children. They come first,” he said. Visions of the Sufragette Parade she watched in New York in 1915 must have flashed before her eyes because her rebellious nature took over. She proceeded to make time for her work, relishing every precious moment at her desk.
“Those early years tested all my abilities as homemaker, artist, and human being. I was plunged at one jump into a sea of problems which only love, devotion, and determination helped me to meet, problems which most women do not face. . . I learned a lot in a hard school. But through it all, I had the joy and satisfaction of my creative work, which sustained and nourished me.”It is difficult to believe that Lenski could not find enough time to do the work she loved so much with over 100 books to her credit. It boggles the mind to imagine the legacy she would have left if she had more time to do what she enjoyed the most.
Lois Lenski Collection at the Jackson Library, UNCG
Lois Lenski Papers of the de Grummond Collection at USM
Little Farm, Walck,
Captive: The Story of Mary
Jemison, Lippincott, 1941.
Lenski's Christmas Stories,
|Cotton in My Sack, Lippincott,
Be A Logger, Lippincott,
Valley Girl, Lippincott,
|Hedblad, Alan, editor, Something About the Author, volume 100, Detroit, Gale Publishing, 1999.|
|Lenski, Lois, Journey into Childhood: The Autobiography of Lois Lenski, Lippincott, 1972.|
|Mahoney, Bertha E. , Latimer, Louise Payson and Folsmbee, Beulah, Illustrators of Children's Books 1744-1945, Boston, The Horn Book Inc., 1947.|
|© 19992002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.
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