June 27, 2018
Katy and the Big Snow
Interests: Heavy machinery
Author and Illustrator: Virginia Lee Burton
Katy and the Big Snow is a classic. Published in 1943, Virginia Lee Burton's story about the tractor too big and strong to work during normal snowfalls who comes to the rescue during a record-setting blizzard charms small children and adults alike. First, there are the fine details in the illustrations - such as the many different types of work done by the highway department that create a border around one scene, and the endlessly fascinating map of "Geopolis." Then there's Katy's personality - strong, persevering, courageous, undaunted. "Nothing can stop her!" And nothing does.
In a world of empowering books about girls doing interesting and amazing things, there are still very few that portray women or female characters working with (or even just being interested in) heavy equipment and machinery. This year, Katy turns 75 - and the empowering message Virginia Lee Burton wrote right at the height of World War II as Rosie the Riveter was working hard on the homefront is still a welcome one with great lessons for kids today - work hard, stay strong, have courage when things look impossible.
Finally, I absolutely love this book for its prose - Virginia Lee Burton does not use many pronouns, which means that the people who speak in the story such as "The Highway Department", "the Chief of Police," "The Fire Chief," "The Head of the Water Department" and so forth could all be men or women - so I can do whatever voices I want for any of them! When I read most stories, the implication is that the unstated gender of animals or unnamed characters is male. But that's not true in Katy and the Big Snow, and I am sincerely grateful to Virginia Lee Burton for writing it that way.
And if you love Katy, you will also love her other female-character vehicle books: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and Maybelle the Cable Car, both of which (along with Katy) have been read so often in our house that the covers have fallen off. Virginia Lee Burton was a reactionary - she writes with nostalgia about the days before "everyone hurried and everyone worried" - but when it comes to portraying women and female characters as strong and capable, she was decades ahead of her time, and children's literature is so much the better for it.