Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lessons from Lois Lenski

For Christmas, I asked for - and received - a copy of the brand new (2016) biography of children's author/illustrator Lois Lenski: Lois Lenski, Storycatcher, by Bobbie Malone.

Lenski is best-known to Betsy-Tacy devotees - and I am nothing if not a Betsy-Tacy devotee - as the beloved illustrator of the first four books in the series: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib; Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill; and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
But she is best known to just about everyone else as the creator of some 100 of her own books, most notably her "American Regional Series," exhaustively and intimately researched books that shared the stories of children from a wide range of hard-working backgrounds, including Strawberry Girl (1945, winner of the Newbery Medal), Cotton in My Sack (1949), Mama Hattie's Girl (1953), and Corn-Farm Boy (1954).

I stumbled upon the biography only because of Lenski's Betsy-Tacy connection (I discovered it on the Betsy-Tacy Society website). It turned out that only ONE PAGE of the 323-page book discusses Lenski's Betsy-Tacy role. But the book was nonetheless mesmerizing in its portrait of this mid-20th-century author who pioneered the telling of untold stories, the hardships and small victories of America's neglected and marginalized children. Some of her titles, such as Cotton in My Sack, ensued from the actual invitation of school children for her to come live among them for a stretch of time to learn their stories - invitations that she was honored to accept.

I was also struck powerfully by Lenski's struggles to maintain a balance between family and work at a time when it was an unquestioned requirement that women would put husband and children first. Lenski married her art-school mentor, Arthur Covey, a widower sixteen years her senior, father of two children in desperate need of a new mother; they also had an additional child together.

The man who had been so unfailingly supportive and encouraging of Lois as his student was far less so of her as his wife. When she complained to him, early in his marriage, that she had no time for her work, they had this exchange (as shared by Malone):

"Your job is the home and the children. They come first."
"But what about my work?"
"That's up to you.. . You'll have to find time for it."

What's amazing is that she did, even becoming the family breadwinner as commissions for his large-scale murals disappeared during the Depression years (and of course, she still had to prioritize home-making and care-giving, even as she earned virtually all of the family's income). She wrote of this conversation with her husband, which would have proved disheartening to so many: "His words, in putting the responsibility up to me, in offering me no aid in my struggle, helped me to realize that I was truly possessed by this creative demon and could not and would not give it up."

A decade later she penned an essay, "Professional and Domestic Life," which laid out the system that allowed her to make her astonishing contribution to children's literature under such adverse conditions:
1. Industry
2. Determination
3. Ability to plan and organize
4. Willingness to make sacrifices
5. Definite purpose in life.

Malone provides some additional details: "Ability to plan and organize" included saving the best hours of the day for her studio by relegating housework to the evenings - a good tip. But most of all, it seems to have been #5 on her list - her strong sense of art as a sacred calling - that explained her success.

I am my family's chief breadwinner, and also a much-in-demand caregiver. Lenski reminds me that the responsibility for finding time for the work I love is, in the end, up to me. I guess I already knew that. My mantra has long been: "If it is to be, it's up to me."

Malone's fascinating biography of Lois Lenski reminds me that, for better or worse, this mantra is as true as true can be.

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