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The Little House Goes to Tokyo

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Lee Burton’s beloved children’s book The Little House. In recognition of this milestone, the Cape Ann Museum is pleased and honored to be joining with its colleagues in Japan to mark this happy occasion and to celebrate the life one of the most accomplished children’s book authors of the 20th century.


A special exhibition focusing on The Little House, other books by Virginia Lee Burton and her work as a Folly Cove Designer opened at the Takenaka Corporation Gallery A4 in Tokyo in June and will remain on display through early August. The exhibition features original artwork and archival materials from the collection of the Cape Ann Museum, the Sawyer Free Library and from the Burton–Demetrios family. It also includes a scale model of Little House, constructed in Tokyo especially for this project. The exhibition was organized by Michiyo Okabe, curator of Gallery A4.

Virginia Lee Burton (1909–1968) was a multi-talented person whose skill as a dancer, designer, writer, illustrator and teacher, touched the lives of many people. It was through her work as a children’s book writer and illustrator, however, that she reached her widest audiences. The Little House was Burton’s fourth work published by the Houghton Mifflin Company and appeared on book shelves in this country in 1942; Burton was awarded the coveted Caldecott Medal for the work in 1943. By 1954, the book had been translated into Japanese by Momoko Ishii and was on its way to becoming an international success. Ten years later, Burton made a two-week long pilgrimage to Japan, invited by the American Cultural Center in Tokyo and hosted by Momoko Ishii. Since that time, The Little House has been as loved by young Japanese readers as it has been by Americans.

The story Virginia Lee Burton weaves in The Little House is simple yet powerful. It is the tale of a small ordinary house that watches its once quiet neighborhood change as urbanization takes hold in the mid-20th century. Familiar surroundings become unrecognizable and menacing. The change of seasons that defined the daily rhythms of life is no longer discernible. And when the moon and the stars are no longer visible in the night sky, the owners move out, abandoning the little house. Just as all seems lost, the inherent worth of the house is recognized by descendants of the original owners. The city that has grown up around it pauses long enough for the house to be lifted off its foundation, loaded onto a trailer and slowly moved out of harm’s way. “At first,” Burton writes, “the Little House was frightened, but after she got used to it she rather liked it. They rolled along the big road, and they rolled along the little roads, until they were way out in the country.” Safely away from the city and set down on a firm new foundation, the house is saved.

While at first The Little House seems a simple story, with her re-markable skill as an artist and her straightforward narrative, Virginia Lee Burton created a much more complex and meaningful story and it is because of this that the book has found such a large base of enthusiastic fans—of all ages—over the past 75 years. It is a story about the importance of honoring the past, of respecting the built world and, at the same time, the natural world. It is a story about the importance of living in harmony with nature and the restorative powers of peacefulness and beauty. And it is also the story about second chances and the importance of family, home and legacy, and about remaining useful and productive. Values and visions such as these are not exclusively American but rather are something that we share in common with the people of Japan and indeed throughout the world. Virginia Lee Burton realized the importance and power of this inclusivity and so did Momoko Ishii when she translated the work for Japanese readers.

The Cape Ann Museum hopes that when this special exhibition closes at Takenaka Corporation Gallery A4 in Tokyo this August, the scale model of Virginia Lee Burton’s Little House, designed and built by our Japanese friends for the exhibit, will be lifted off its foundations and lovingly transported to Gloucester to be enjoyed and appreciated by residents of the community that inspired The Little House so many years ago.