When book reviewer and blogger Sarah Curtis Graziano recently selected Thornton Burgess' children's classic Old Mother West Wind to include in her review of read-aloud books with multi-age appeal for Babble.com, a Walt Disney-sponsored site for parents, she wonderfully highlights a remarkable 107-year-old children's book.
As my biography Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess (Schiffer, 2013) relates, Old Mother West Wind was published in 1910, the first children's book written by then journalist Thornton Burgess of Springfield, Massachusetts. Its 16 animal tales were written as read-aloud bedtime stories for Burgess' 3 1/2- year-old son Thornton, Jr. but it was rapidly followed by dozens of other books and a readership of millions of children and adults of all ages.
Although Burgess wrote 70 children's books, Old Mother West Wind remained his most popular. It was translated into Japanese and printed in Braille (one of the few fiction books available for children in Braille in mid-20th century). Burgess' Peter Rabbit first appeared as one of many characters in OMWW, the name inspired by Beatrix Potter's own beloved rabbit character. (Nature's Ambassador discusses the intriguing Potter-Burgess connection.)
As Graziano notes, Burgess' books had a Pied Piper appeal, but why? Betty Anderson and Wayne Petersen, well-known members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, have said they loved Burgess books because of their authenticity. The creatures and habitats he described were exactly what they discovered when they stepped outdoors into nature.
Burgess wanted to entertain children with his animal stories, but their deeper purpose was to promote respect for nature, conservation values and environmental education. . David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club and Bradford Washburn, beloved director of the Boston Museum of Science, both credited the children's writer with influencing their life's path. (As an adult reader, I found the description of how spiders spin webs by Madam Orb in On the Green Meadows to be amazingly instructive.)
Graziano helpfully directs potential readers to look for OMWW editions illustrated by artist Michael Hague. His gorgeous work was selected by Henry Holt & Co for their 1990 anniversary edition; two full-color Hague prints are reproduced in Nature's Ambassador. Through LinkedIn I tracked down Mr. Hague in Colorado and interviewed the only living Burgess illustrator. He told me he was honored to work on an American classic like Old Mother West Wind!
I'm sure Thornton Burgess, a modest man by all accounts, would also have been honored to have his very first children's book selected for a 2017 read-aloud book review, and on his behalf, Ms. Graziano, thank you!