Whether a young adult novel, a picture book, an historical narrative, or a folk song, Lois Lenksi always intended her books to be "essentially family stories." Her tales of children and their homes demonstrated the wide diversity of early American life and the issues faced by people everywhere. Set in very specific regions and situations, her "family stories" easily became mainstays of children's literature.
Authors draw their inspiration from all aspects of life, but with Lenski, it is fairly easy to pinpoint her beginnings. Her father was a Lutheran clergyman, and when Lois was six, moved the family from Springfield, Ohio to Anna, Ohio to take a new post. The small, rural community of about 200 residents was perfect for Lois, and she thrived alongside her four siblings. Her parents emphasized learning, and the children spent many hours reading and assisting their father with his photography hobby. Lois shared in her father's artistic passion, first learning how to draw by copying magazine pictures.
Anna was too small to offer high school, so Lois drove to nearby Sydney to take classes. She graduated in 1911 and accompanied her family to Columbus, where she then attended The Ohio State University. (Her father taught at Capital University, but the school did not admit girls.) True to her family's wishes, she graduated with a degree in education and a teaching certificate-but made a last-minute change of plans. Her art professors had begged her to continue drawing, so she followed her talent to the Art Students League in New York City.
For four years, Lenski took art classes and worked part time. In an effort to develop her talent, she took jobs lettering and painting greeting cards and sketching fashion advertisements. She met artist (and future husband) Arthur Convey in an illustration class, and used that connection to begin work on several murals. Her efforts eventually paid off, and in 1920, Lenski left the country to study in London and Italy. There she was hired to illustrate books for publisher John Lane. Lenski later referred to the 1920s as her years of apprenticeship. She developed her skill at drawing landscapes and human figures, and received steady work illustrating children's books.
Back in America, she married Convey and became stepmother to his two children. Though she maintained her own work, he new household and family responsibilities weighed heavily on her, and her husband provided no help. This did not stop her, however, from taking a publisher's suggestion that she write and illustrate her own books. In 1927, Lenski published Skipping Village, immediately followed by A Little Girl of 1900.
Initially, Lenski drew heavily on her childhood experiences and family life in her writing. Her Mr. Small series was based on the imaginative play of her youngest son, Stephen; the young hero becomes a sailor, engineer, farmer, fireman, father, and policeman in the course of the books. She soon moved on to historical fiction with her popular novel Phoebe Fairchild, Her Book. The title character was a girl growing up in the Lenski's Connecticut farmhouse in the 1830s. Lenski wrote that, in her historical novels, she hoped to "describe the everyday life of people in a given period, to tell what they thought, felt, said, and did, how they got their food, shelter, and clothing."
Lenski suffered from ill health throughout her life, and it worsened in the 1940s. When her doctor mandated she leave the harsh Connecticut winters, her family moved to Louisiana and then Florida. Stirred by her surroundings, she began writing her "regional books," starting with Bayou Suzette in 1943. "On my trips south," she wrote, "I saw the real America for the first time. I saw and learned what the word region meant as I witnessed firsthand different ways of life unlike my own. What interested me most was the way children were living."
All of Lenski's regional texts were thoroughly researched. For a novel about a girl growing up on a Mississippi houseboat, Lenski actually lived on a boat for some time, eating dinner with the family and helping them sell fish to cotton pickers. She wrote a total of sixteen regional books about all types of American children, whether they lived on peanut farms, housing projects, or cranberry bogs. Her childhood in Anna had taught her just how much a home or a town can affect a person's life, and how important it is that people share these experiences with others.
Until her death in 1974, Lois Lenski was the most direct, most realistic author of children's regional novels. All told, she authored and illustrated nearly one hundred of her own books, and illustrated about fifty for other authors. Throughout her career, she sought true stories of American lives and American young people, and book after book, translated them into language we could all understand. In a collection of poems entitled The Life I Live, she wrote that she wanted her writing to "illuminate the real environment -- desert, woodland, mountain, city, river, cottonfields -- where real children live; and to make it vivid and understandable to other children who have never been in these places at all."