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Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker and John Rocco

Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker and John Rocco is a love letter to a picture book author and illustrator who left and continues to leave an imprint on the imaginations of millions of children, including me. Big Machines is also a wonderful, intimate look at the creative process, from inspiration to execution, told in a way that children will understand. Like Burton's books about things that go, Rinker, the author of the best selling Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site and many other truck and train picture books, understands the deep fascination big machines hold for almost all little kids. Both Rinker and Rocco bring a wealth of knowledge about Burton's life to Big Machines and, as someone who grew up reading Burton's books, then reading them again, over and over, to my own children, it is a treat to pore over the richly detailed, gorgeous illustrations, seeing images and themes from Burton's works and life appear here, starting with Rocco's endpapers featuring the house from Burton's Caldecott winner (and my all-time favorite) The Little House, the patterns referencing Burton's work with the Folly Cove design group she founded in and named after her home town in Massachusetts.

Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton introduces children to the creative process as well as the joy and the gift of creating and sharing. Introducing Virginia Lee Burton on the first page of the book, Rinker writes, "Anyone who meets Jinnee will tell you that she is quite magical." And Big Machines proves to be quite magical also, the words and pictures partnering perfectly. Rocco works in Burton's illustration style while also framing her art with his own style. Rocco shows Jinnee, first at her desk, a typewriter and art supplies surrounding her, then, inspired by her sons Aris and Michael, she becomes a dancer moving across a stage, creating a steam engine chugging down the tracks. The fact that Burton was both inspired by and created books for her sons, who appear on almost every page, will hook kids. 

As a connoisseur of picture books, the fact that Burton's work was informed by her sons is fascinating and important to me. A biography of Burton, found on her publisher's website, I discovered this quote that explained, in part, the enduring magic of the books she created:

Choo Choo is not my first book. My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.

I couldn't agree more. And I can't tell you how many picture books I read each year and wonder if the author has ever read this book, or any books, out loud to children. And, in all fairness, it can be hard to guess what kids will like. In the end, I think that most kids enjoy being read out loud to, the time spent with them and the connection made between the reader and listener, listener and book. When a book is genuinely magical, you will know it because you will be asked to read it over and over. With her themes of change, adaptation and survival, Burton's books are the kind you won't mind reading again and again. 

Source: Review Copy


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