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Lois Lenski wrote and illustrated children’s books throughout her career of more than fifty years. She visited parts of Mississippi County while researching her three books about Arkansas children: Cotton in My Sack, Houseboat Girl, and We Live by the River.
Lois Lenski was born the fourth of five children in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1893. Her father, Richard, was a Prussian immigrant and a Lutheran clergyman; her mother, Marietta, was a schoolteacher. Lenski attended grade school in Anna, Ohio, and rode a train each day to Sidney, Ohio, to attend high school. After graduating from Ohio State University in 1915 with a BS in education and a teaching certificate, Lenski studied at the Arts Students League in New York City and the Westminster School of Art in London, England.
Upon her return from England in 1921, Lenski married her former art instructor, Arthur Covey and became a stepmother to his two children. Their only child, Stephen, was born in 1929.
Lenski spent much of her early career illustrating children’s books for other authors. A publisher’s suggestion that she write her own stories launched Lenski’s vocation as a writer/illustrator. Her first book, Skipping Village, debuted in 1927. With Bayou Suzette in 1943, Lenski began her “regional series,” a collection of children’s books describing mostly rural settings across America. Lenski’s children’s books, poetry, and songbooks were printed by a number of publishers, including Harper, Oxford University Press, Lippincott, and Walck.
After students in Miss Minnie Foster’s classes in the community of Yarbro (Mississippi County) heard Lenski read one of her books on the radio, they invited her to visit northeast Arkansas. She visited during the spring and fall of 1947, likely staying for a month or two at a hotel in Blytheville (Mississippi County). Afterward, she inscribed in Cotton in My Sack, the book inspired by this visit, “for my beloved Arkansas cotton children.”
Cotton in My Sack (Lippincott, 1949) portrays life among the sharecroppers, tenants, and farmers in cotton country the 1940s. The book centers upon Joanda and family, who share in a hardscrabble life of near poverty controlled by the weather and the cotton industry. The tales of a tractor accident, a furniture fire, and a one-armed hot tamale vendor are all true to the Blytheville area.
Lenski’s fondness for the children of Arkansas continued in two more books about rural northeast Arkansas. She returned to Mississippi County again in 1954 to learn of the “river rats” who grew up on the Mississippi River. We Live by the River (Lippincott, 1956) is a short story about Lola Mae and her life on Deerfoot Island on the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Tennessee. Lola Mae rides a boat across the chute to Arkansas to go to school, shop, or visit with friends.
In Houseboat Girl (Lippincott, 1957), Patsy, her parents, three siblings, a cat, a dog, chickens, and pet turtles travel on a houseboat down the Mississippi River as her father earns a living trotlining for catfish and turtles. Patsy finally gets a house on land when they ground the houseboat in Luxora (Mississippi County), where Patsy and her brother and sisters are able to attend school.
In 1946, Lenski was awarded the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association for Strawberry Girl, the story of migrant workers in Florida. Over the next twenty years, Lenski wrote sixteen books in the regional series. During her career, Lenski illustrated more than fifty books for other authors, and wrote and illustrated over 100 of her own books.
Lenski died at her home in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on September 11, 1974, at the age of eighty. She is buried at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater, Florida.
For additional information:
Lois Lenski Collection. Dean B. Ellis Library Archives and Special Collections. Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Malone, Bobbie. Lois Lenski: Storycatcher. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
Ranta, Taimi M. “Lois Lenski.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 22: American Writers for Children, 1900–1960. Edited by John Cech. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.
Rebecca Adams Gatz
Last Updated 2/23/2018
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