Katy and the Big Snow

Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios (1909-1968), painted title page of photocopied sketch for mock-up of Katy and the Big Snow. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Gloucester, MA. Gift of Aristides Burton Demetrios & Ilene H. Nagel, 2019 [Acc. #2019.011].

The fifth major publication by children’s author and artist Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow, was introduced to readers the same year The Little House won the Caldecott Award for most distinguished picture book in 1943. Indeed, the dedication page of Katy shows this new titular character plowing a path through the snow, passing by a certain “little house,” a “Wonder Horse,” a large steam shovel, and even a train, from which you can almost hear the “Choo Choo” sounding. The narrative depicts the town of Geoppolis (yet another way to pronounce “Gloucester”!) in the midst of a major, major snowstorm that none of the regular trucks can handle; none, that is, but our hero K.T.

“Then early one morning it started to drizzle. The drizzle turned into rain. The rain turned into snow. By noon it was four inches deep.” With this, the external conflict has been introduced and the culprit is none other than ice and snow! Without revealing too many spoilers, our hero gets to work clearing the city’s roads and aiding in various emergencies that require her attention. One of note is the clearing of an airport runway – placing one within Dogtown was something regularly discussed at Gloucester City Council meetings in the early 1940s.

Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios (1909-1968), painted full-page spread of Katy’s cleared path of Geoppolis in mock-up of Katy and the Big Snow. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Gloucester, MA. Gift of Aristides Burton Demetrios & Ilene H. Nagel, 2019 [Acc. #2019.011].

The plow, Katy (or K.T. as it reads above her blade) is based on “the city’s [Gloucester’s] International crawler tractor, seven and a half tons, Diesel-powered, rigged as a bulldozer for road building and as a plow for the big snow” as a 1943 Gloucester Daily Times article explains.

Burton worked with numerous Gloucester Highway Department employees in the machine cab during her research for the publication. Once, apparently, even with son Aris timidly in tow, “I was terrified” he later laughingly relayed to Barbara Elleman. City Superintendent Preston C. Strople, Chief Mechanic Harold Jarvis, and even the tractor’s operation Leland Digou all helped Burton gather information for her project. These professional insights were no doubt integral in accurately depicting the City’s role during a major storm as well as specifics on the motorized equipment illustrated throughout. Even the details of the city’s emergency signs are to be noted. Though, as a Publishers’ Weekly review on January 29, 1944, notes, “Miss Burton is no novice when it comes to the intricacies of mechanical marvels” in citing both Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Choo Choo.

For Cape Ann residents, two great collections of original artworks for the publication by Burton exist here in Gloucester. The first can be found in the CAM Library & Archives in the Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios Papers. This collection is an all-encompassing look at the author’s career through her publications and work with the Folly Cove Designers. Katy’s representation within this collection is seen primarily in over forty painted pages for the book. Outside of slight color and detail variations, these pages appear to be extremely close to what would eventually be printed for publication. Also, of note in this collection is a 1944 letter from her editor and fellow Folly Cove Designers member Lee Kingman Natti sharing the excitement that the new publication is generating. (She goes on to say that a few of them have “gotten ourselves so convinced that Folly Cove is going to be the place for all young married couples that we just hope the Folly Cove Designers won’t have to turn into a PTA association as well!” - but that’s a story for another time!). The other collection on Katy is housed at the Sawyer Free Library and currently on loan to the Cape Ann Museum for this weekend’s Gloucester’s So Salty. This collection contains original artwork for the book with charcoal pencil, pen and ink drawing, with some pages colored with watercolor paint. 

Despite these great examples of Burton’s illustration process, there is little written on and even fewer insights into Burton’s writing process for this publication outside of her work with the Gloucester Highway Department. With so much attention going to the award-winning The Little House, and then her focus shifting to her next major illustration project, the Song of Robin Hood, perhaps Katy, as she does in the book, just did her job (and well!) “then she went home to rest.”

Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios (1909-1968), black and white sketch of final page of Katy and the Big Snow. Collection of the Sawyer Free Library, Gloucester, MA.

If you happen to pass by the Museum courtyard in the next few days (weeks, weather permitting), you’ll see the familiar face above made into an ice sculpture by artist Donald Chapelle on the occasion of this year’s Gloucester’s So Salty event.

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