All this recent snow has reminded me of one of my favorite picture books from childhood, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Though not as famous as some of her other books, I think it’s one of the best books about snow, and one of the best picture books ever made.
The story is deceptively simple – a city is buried in a blizzard of snow, and a tractor named Katy saves the day by plowing everyone out. But there are many remarkable things about this book, starting with the design. Burton was a designer and printmaker as well as an author and illustrator, and she uses pattern, shape and simplification to turn every page into a visual marvel. Take the city itself, designed as a map so intricate yet so understandable because of its simple design.
This map becomes even more amazing when you realize that it is a template for all the scenes later in the book. When Katy plows out the railroad station, you can go back to the map and see how it matches up. Burton even adds a compass to many of the pages to help readers see where they are.
There is also a wonderful use of white space to emphasize the blanket of snow that envelopes the city. As the intrepid tractor plows through the snow, we see the city emerge from the whiteness. She plows each section of the city, eventually uncovering the entire map that we saw at the beginning of the book.
There are many other layers to this book, for instance how it shows all the different parts of a city (fire department, water department, telephone company, etc) and how they work together. And it has great little details like the milk truck and bakery truck resuming their deliveries after Katy clears the way.
The repeating swirls and curves of the city establish a visual theme that is carried throughout the book. Even more so than The Little House or Mike Mulligan, this book uses the kind of decorative borders and patterns that Burton excelled at in her printmaking and fabric design. The simple palette of white and blue, set off with highlights of red, yellow and green for the buildings, makes for a vivid and memorable design.
There are almost no close-ups in this book, something which goes against all the “rules” of book illustration that say you must vary your perspective. And yet it works here because it lets you follow Katy’s progress as she plows out each section of the city, and you can see not only where she is at that moment, but also the places she previously plowed out as they resume their business. Burton had an instinctive eye for how to tell a story visually, and how to show only what was necessary.
The story itself contains themes of patience and hard work. Katy is too big to plow during light storms, but when the big blizzard hits, she comes to the rescue and saves the entire city. The fact that Katy is a female tractor is never mentioned, which in itself is a quiet but powerful message about equality. Almost sixty years after its publication, children’s books about trucks and machines are still overwhelmingly aimed at boys, which is too bad. Katy was a pioneer, just like her creator, carving out new paths in storytelling and bookmaking. This is a true classic, far ahead of its time; and in some ways, ahead of ours.