In the early 1940s, Lois Lenski was entering her late 40s, and her health was sagging to the point that one of the great joys of her life — sitting in a chair and painting at an easel — had become physically taxing.
As they packed for their first trip south, she and artist-husband Arthur Covey’s primary goal was to follow her doctor’s advice and spare her from the harsh winters that rattled the windows at their historic Connecticut farmhouse, Greenacres.
Any thought that their first winter’s stay in Louisiana bayou country would set the Springfield-born writer and illustrator on a path to a Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to literature for children” would have seemed a health-related hallucination.
But for Lenski it proved to be more than that. It was a step onto a path on which she first connected with America’s diversity by meeting with and telling the stories of its children, an experience that led Lenski to a more profound connection with her religious beliefs.
The fourth of five Lenski children, she came into the world Oct. 14, 1893, at 422 Cedar St., then spent the first six years of her life at Columbia Street parsonage of Zion Lutheran Church.
The year she was born, a Lutheran press in Columbus published the English language book “His Footsteps: Studies for Edification from the Life of Christ” by her Prussian émigré father, RCH Lenski. Two years later, it published his German language book “Biblische Frauenbilder” or “The Women of the Bible.”
After stays in Springfield and then Anna, Ohio, from which young Lois traveled to Sidney to go to high school, the Lenskis moved to Columbus. Richard joined the faculty at then exclusively male Capital University while Lois attended Ohio State University.
If her summer volunteer work at Columbus playgrounds and her coursework in education led Lenski’s parents to assume she’d follow her mother’s footsteps into teaching, they likely were surprised when she graduated and headed to New York to study art and eke out a living, then continued on to London, England, to continued her studies and illustrate children’s books written by others.
Lois married Covey on her return to the United States in 1921, cared for stepchildren Margaret and Laird, and nurtured her own dreams of being a writer and illustrator. She began in 1927 with two books about her own childhood, “Skipping Village” and “A Little Girl of 1900.”
After the birth of the Coveys’ son, Stephen, she celebrated his toddler years by writing the “Mr. Small” series of books, then explored the childhoods of earlier times with a series of historical books, including one based in her Connecticut home and another about Mary Jemison called “Indian Captive.”
In her Newbery acceptance speech, Lenski said it was after her “study of child life in the past,” that she “became dissatisfied” and “felt a tremendous urge for a broader experience” of her own time.
“The exigencies of ill-health made it possible … for me to begin spending my winters in the South,” she explained. “I began a new lease on life: I began to see America with my own eyes – and heart and mind – for the first time. Being both writer and artist, the experience, absorbing all my faculties has been rich and rewarding.”
It would prove to be the same for her readers.
That first trip to Louisiana produced the book “Bayou Suzette.”
Its subject was about childhood among what those who looked down on them called the “river rats,” people who eked out a living along tributaries of the Mississippi River and who spoke, she said, in “the soft, velvety tones of the bayou-French.”
Next came the Newbery prize winning “Strawberry Girl,” about the back country Florida “Crackers,” called that in those days not derisively but in reference to the cracks of whips used by those who settled the interior Florida horse country. They, too, were marginalized people.
As in Louisiana and Florida, Lenski over the next 20 years lived for a time with children who weathered the brutal Plains winters in South Dakota (“Prairie School”); who grew up in the social chaos oil booms brought to Oklahoma towns (“Boomtown Boy”); whose families migrated with the crops (“Judy’s Journey”); and who lived in high rise housing projects tucked between bridges and railways (“High-Rise Secret”).
The stories were not always polite fare: Children in the high-rises fought; those in boomtowns witnessed shootings; “Cotton” children worked from the earliest age; and the ceaselessly working migrant children in “Judy’s Journey,” wrote Lenski, “have never had books or playthings. Some of them are no longer childlike, but are already old before they are 10. They do not know how to play – they are good fighters.”
Just as she defended her use of dialect against those who worried it would teach children improper English, in an article in “The Horn Book Magazine,” she defended her stories’ inclusion of episodes involving drunken fathers and malicious neighbors because the stories “are true and authentic.”
“There are, unfortunately, many drunken fathers and objectionable neighbors in the world, and there are many children, whether we like to believe it or not, who have to face these facts and do something about it” as characters in “Strawberry Girl” did.
She learned not only about the diverse experiences of children but the diverse ways communities functioned – communities like those in Florida where people were at odds over open range laws for cattle and hogs.
“I became keenly interested in learning how the finer people among the Crackers met such happenings and reacted to them. I was amazed to discover that after some of their worst fights, the quarreling neighbors came together for an evening frolic or a neighborhood square dance, forgetting their differences.”
Lenski argued that in an effort to shield their children from the realities other children face, a divisive “aristocracy of ‘niceness’ (was) being taught our privileged children. The superior children are the ones that are clean, have money, nice clothes, nice manners, take music and dancing lessons, go to the right school and children and live in the ‘nice’ – that is, restricted – part of town.”
She expressed her worries about how this contributed to the nation’s social divides in a speech later published as a three-part series called “Understanding People” in her Lutheran denomination’s “Women’s Missionary Outlook” magazine.
Likening the challenge in the country to missionary work done abroad, she argued that because of the rapid changes in society, “we need to think read and study a very fundamental question to guide us in our relations with people: “Who is our neighbor and how can I love him as myself?”
In another installment in the series she boldly wrote: “As Christian parents, teachers and leaders, it is our duty to teach our children, by word and example, that we love God only to the extent that we love our neighbor, whether that neighbor is next door, across the street, across the country or across the world.”
This is what Lenski sought to teach children through stories collected and set in different American regions and locales.
“Through such stories,” she wrote, “the child …. acquires new respect and reverence for life in all its various manifestations. He begins to look deeper than appearance, deeper than a spoken accent or a surface materialism, deeper than social caste and conventions to a sounder appreciation of human character.”
She adds: “Only as a person is judged in light of his environment and the economic and social pressures which it brings on his way of life, can he be understood for his own true worth.”
In the end, Lenski’s inability to sit comfortably at her easel allowed the child born on Cedar Street in Springfield to bring her readers’ wide panorama of American life.
On Oct. 14, 1953, the day she turned 60, Lenski returned to Springfield’s Warder Public Library for the dedication the upstairs Lois Lenski Boys and Girls room in her honor.
Her name now graces the children’s area of the current Clark County Public Library, which has a collection of her original drawings and a file of papers written by and about her and that embody her own story.
Lenski died in Tarpon Springs, Fla., in September of 1974, one month shy of her 81st birthday and having written nearly 100 books for children.