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Lois Lenski: Creation of Houseboat Girl

 

The Creation Of Lois Lenski's Houseboat Girl

 

Beginning with Bayou Suzette in 1943 Lois Lenski began writing a series of books which would become known as her "regional series." In her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood, Lenski discusses the creation of these books. In the early 1940s Lenski - who suffered from periodic bouts of ill-health - was told by her doctor that she needed to spend the winter months in a climate that was warmer than her Connecticut home. As a result, Lenski and her husband Arthur Covey traveled south each fall in order to spend their winters first in Louisiana, then later in Florida. As Lenski wrote in her autobiography: "On my trips south I saw the real America for the first time. I saw and learned what the word region meant as I witnessed firsthand different ways of life unlike my own. What interested me most was the way children were living" (183).

In Journey Into Childhood, Lenski wrote that she was struck by the fact that there were "plenty of books that tell how children live in Alaska, Holland, China, and Mexico, but no books at all telling about the many ways children live here in the United States" (183). After having written her series of historical novels, Lenski felt comfortable writing fiction and was eager to write about the lives of contemporary children throughout the United States.

The positive reception that Bayou Suzette received from both educators and children convinced Lenski that there was indeed a need for these type of books. Her second regional, Strawberry Girl - published in 1945 - received the 1946 Newbery Medal. At first Lenski wrote about the regions which she traveled through on her way from Connecticut to Florida. But as the series became well known, children began writing to Lenski, asking her to visit their area and write about them.

All of Lenski's regional books were carefully researched. The primary source materials for Houseboat Girl, which is part of Milner Library's Lenski Collection, reflect Lenski's dedication to portraying the people, practices, and geography of each region as accurately as she could. According to Lenski's scrapbooks for Houseboat Girl, her research for this book began in 1954 when she traveled to the Blytheville, Arkansas region. Lenski was already somewhat familiar with this region, having spent time there several years earlier when she was researching her 1949 regional novel Cotton in My Sack.

Lenski's interest in writing about a family living in a houseboat on the Mississippi River may have stemmed from her research in Arkansas for Cotton in My Sack. When writing her regional novels, Lenski usually focused on the experiences of one family, and often used real people as the models for her characters. For help in finding a family to write about, Lenski contacted Harlan Hubbard, the author of the the 1953 novel Shantyboat. While researching his own book, Hubbard met Henry and Lou Story and their children, and thought they would be an ideal family for Lenski's purposes.

During the summer of 1954 Lenski spent six weeks with the Story family. The Storys had four children: Peggy, Irene, Pete, and Debbie. In Houseboat Girl, the Story family was transformed into the Foster family, and Irene was the inspiration for the novel's main character Patsy Foster. In her Foreword to Houseboat Girl, Lenski writes that she "was able to see them [the Story family] almost daily on their houseboat." Lenski goes on to say that she "ate meals with the family, went out on the river with the children in their johnboats, took notes and made many sketches, helped to sell fish to the cotton pickers, and learned by firsthand experience all the intricacies of trotline and hoop-net fishing."

Houseboat Girl was published by Lippincott in 1957. The reaction of the Story family toward the book was very favorable. In a letter contained in Milner Library's Lenski Collection, Lou Story writes Lenski that "we read and laugh as so much sounds just like us and that Patsy is so much like Irene." Milner Library's Lenski Collection includes a wide range of primary material related to Lenski's Houseboat Girl, including:

  • a scrapbook of background material on the creation of the novel, including Lenski's notes, her outline, and letters
  • a scrapbook of newspaper clippings concerning the Mississippi River
  • a scrapbook of black-and-white photographs that Lenski took while researching Houseboat Girl and staying with the Story family
  • a scrapbook of preliminary sketches Lenski created based upon her photographs
  • a scrapbook of post-publication letters, including several from members of the Story family

--Denise Anton Wright

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