Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, by Bobbie Malone, (University of Oklahoma Press) is our 2016 Nonfiction Book of the Year. From erotic poetry that fuels the flames of passion to instructions on how to build a nuclear weapon, books perform amazing feats. Consider the work history books do when they keep us from repeating the blunders of the past. And how sacred religious texts help us maintain a relationship with the divine. But we’d argue that the humble biography ranks number one in importance because the best biographies light the way to a brighter future by showcasing the experiences, lessons, and wisdom of a life lived in full. Indeed, it would be tough to stand on the shoulders of giants without the help of some well-written life stories.
The hero of our story, Lois Lenski, was already a leading illustrator in the early to mid-1920s when book publishing discovered life after the fairy tale. New, science-based ideas in child development encouraged book professionals to focus on the various stages of children’s lives and to deliver age-appropriate content. By simply observing youngsters at play, paying attention to their chatter and spontaneity, authors and illustrators like Lenski were pioneers in creating reality-based stories.
Children’s literature scholar Anne Scott MacLeod described this period as the “halcyon years” in children’s publishing because the field was dominated by women who were “trained librarians, editors, and reviewers.” Within just a handful of years, all the major publishers implemented “special departments with special editors for their children’s books,” and Lenski proceeded to illustrate books for nearly all of them.
Born in 1893 to a charismatic, much loved pastor and doting mother, Lenski’s first eighteen years were idyllically spent in small town Ohio. After earning a degree from Ohio State University, she defied her father by moving alone to New York City to continue her art studies. Attractive, conservative, shy, but extremely ambitious, she supported herself illustrating gift cards and department store displays, and fulfilled a dream by visiting Europe. In London, on a whim, she popped her head into a publisher and was given a book to illustrate within minutes. After returning to the states in 1921, she married illustrator and muralist Arthur Sinclair Covey, and proceeded with a fifty-some year career as both a writer and illustrator of dozens of award-winning children’s books. It seems her success was destined from the beginning. She died in 1974.
But we are also here to celebrate the immense writing talent and vision of Bobbie Malone, the author of this flawless project. In her introduction and afterword, Malone tellingly relates that Lenski was intensely private: “No letters between her and her parents, husband, stepchildren, or children appear in her archives. … Such reflexive self-protection and censorship unfortunately prevents us from gaining as much insight as we might want.” In other words, Lenski wasn’t the easiest subject to research, but Malone’s readers will be nothing but awed by the breadth and detail she provides into Lenski’s life and legacy. And a final shout out to the University of Oklahoma Press for bringing this gem to market. It is our honor to name Lois Lenski: Storycatcher our nonfiction book of the year.
Matt Sutherland is Editor In Chief at Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.