Book review by Tara Allison
October 13, 2013
There’s much to tell about Thornton W. Burgess (1874-1965), a remarkable writer who, as Christie Palmer Lowrance sums him up in this entertaining biography, “blended fact and fiction, science and fable, entertainment and environmental education” into books and stories for children.
Lowrance carries us through Burgess’ life step-by-step, from his threadbare beginnings through his many astonishing successes. It’s obvious she’s done an enormous amount of research and might have bogged the book down with minutiae. But she chose wisely and moves it along in an entertaining, easy-to-read fashion that any reader will find enjoyable.
She lets Burgess use his own voice frequently by including quotes from his public lectures and entries from his diary. Also included are letters from appreciative children, quotes by peers and admirers, and interviews with family members, all of which add heft and depth to the story of a man who died much too soon, even at his advanced age of 91 years. There are also numerous photos and color plates to enjoy.
Thornton Burgess loved nature from the moment he began to explore it as a youngster. Through a series of serendipitous job offers he went from bookkeeper to world-famous writer of stories loved by one and all.
How’s this for a legacy: Seventy books; 144 single-issue picture books; over 15,000 syndicated newspaper articles; publication in numerous foreign languages; 64 books still in print when he died in 1965. And, more than half of his books are still available today. Major newspapers carried his syndicated stories to millions of children throughout North America (many adults enjoyed them, too). And, there’s more: He also hosted a popular nature radio program for children and joined lecture circuits in order to promote conservation of wildlife and natural habitats. As they say, he not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. (On one of his group nature walks he captured on film the last sighting of the now-extinct Heath Hen.)
His stories weren’t ordinary kids’ bedtime stories. They always included a simple but entertaining plot featuring animal characters who wore clothes and displayed some human sensibilities, but were served up with a strong helping of fact, even when they might seem unsuitable for young minds. For instance, some of his characters are predators who eat other animals and Burgess doesn’t shield his readers from that (although Old Man Coyote, Reddy Fox and Buster Bear never succeed in catching their prey).
Only just part-way into this book, I was already wishing I had known this man of intellect, ambition and drive who still managed to stay down-to-earth and humble. He had a loving heart and an intuitive understanding of children’s interests, eagerness and capacity to learn respect for wildlife and their habitats.
About the author: Christie Palmer Lowrance is an experienced writer/editor/teacher/public relations expert. Her articles have appeared in numerous national and regional publications. For years she worked as a travel writer and an editor for Fodor’s Travel Guides, among others. She holds a B.A. degree from Hobart & William Smith Colleges and M.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.