Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton

When I was in 3rd grade I took this book out of my elementary school library on a continual basis. I must have had it all year. At the end of the school year the librarian gave me the book, and I still have that copy.   There’s a book plate on the title page identifying the book as being from the Boston Public Schools, with a note written by me at age 8 which says ‘And given to Peter by the librarian!’.

Thirty something years later I bought a new hardcover edition of the book for my son when he was about two years old. Too young to know exactly what is going on, but from looking at the illustrations in the pre-histortic era section of the book, he now can say “Dinosaur”.  He can also pick out his dad’s favorite illustration of early spring at the farm later in the book.

Virginia Lee Burton wrote and illustrated seven children’s books, and illustrated six works by other authors. Most likely her most well known works are ‘The Little House’, and ‘Mike Milligan and His Steam Shovel’. ‘The Little House’, in which we follow the story of one small house located in a rural area as a nearby city expands over time to eventually surround it, it won the Caldecott medal in 1943. In ‘Mike Milligan’, the title character uses his steam shovel to help a small town build a new town hall. His steam shovel may be out of date, but he finds a place where it is useful and needed.

Unlike her other works, Virginia Lee Burton’s ‘Life Story’ is non-fiction. This is the story of evolution, but more than that it is the story of ‘Life’. Each two page spread includes a detailed illustration of a time period, and is accompanied with Burton’s poetic description.  The story advances through the ages, from the beginning of the Solar System, through the early stages of life, dinosaurs, early mammals, cave men, up through the present time.  


Each illustration appears as if on a stage, with a narrator letting us know what is happening. Similar to a play, once we move towards the present time, the use of the narrator reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’.

Each illustration is meant to focus on a particular location. This becomes apparent once we have moved through time to the present day and the place is now a farm.  We follow the farm through a few seasons, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.  Her artwork tends to have a lot of movement associated with it. Birds move in circles through the sky, Pterosaurs fly in formation, rivers meander around bends, filled with fishes swimming in shapes that fit in with the animals around them. Lines are bold and curvilinear, drawing the eye to the narrator, or a central figure on the farm.


‘As the afternoon hours slipped by
and the sun began to sink in the west,
the shadows on the ground gradually lengthened.
Just before the sun set it turned fiery red,
tinting the sky and the earth bright pink.
High overhead a pale new moon appeared.
By the brook the frogs were singing their song of spring.”

Burton’s prose here is as beautiful as her artwork, it reads like poetry.  As the book was first published in 1962, recent editions have been updated with new scientific discoveries, but the additions are glaring when compared to Burton’s words.  Certain words have been changed as well, such as each of Burton’s use of the word ‘mankind’ being changed to ‘human beings’.  The changes affect the flow of the prose at times and so are easy to spot.  I think the reason they are so obvious is that the updates are focused on a fact based, scientific explanation of each time period. While Burton is concerned with Science, she is also interested in a more philosophical viewpoint. She’s looking at the mysteries of life.

Like her swirling artwork, the story is meant to show the flow of time. The last page is particularly poetic, as we have reached the present day;

“And now it is your Life Story
and it is you who plays the leading role.
The stage is set, the time is now, and the place wherever you are.
Each passing second is a new link in the endless chain of Time.
The drama of Life is a continuous story – ever new,
ever changing, and ever wondrous to behold.”

I’ll probably have that 3rd grade version of this book for the rest of my life.  

I would think that this would be a good choice for kids ages 7 through 10, to read by themselves, though it could easily be read aloud by a parent to younger kids. Good luck finding the older version, at least it’s still in print though!

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