Retired Mississippi teacher used Keats’ books for years in teaching her students. Now, she’s penned a biography of the American writer and children’s book illustrator. Meet Virginia McGee Butler at this year’s Mississippi Book Festival.
Virginia McGee Butler has always loved to write. The Hattiesburg resident says that as a child she was usually lost in a book.
“I grew up in North Mississippi, the daughter of a country pastor,” she says.
The family moved around a lot from church to church, and Virginia met her husband, Allen Butler, at one of those churches. “He played the piano for the choir.”
Shortly after Virginia graduated from Ole Miss, Al was drafted by the Army. Over the years, the couple, along with their three children, lived in different cities in the United States and abroad. Virginia taught kindergarten in San Antonio, second grade in Germany and in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and language arts for gifted students in Leesville, Louisiana. It was there that Virginia decided she wanted to be a writer.
The couple retired in Hattiesburg in 2001, which is where the famed deGrummond Children’s Literature Collection is housed at the University of Southern Mississippi. While working as a volunteer researcher for the 50th anniversary of A Snowy Day, published by Ezra Jack Keats in 1962, Virginia realized there was a biography that needed to be written.
“I used his books for years to teach my students, and realized while doing my research that there was no book about his life.”
Because middle schoolers were so familiar with Keats’ work, Virginia wanted to write the book as a biography for middle schoolers. She started in 2010 and took her time going through six boxes of information about Keats.
“I finished it and sent it out and got a stack of rejection letters. I even have an article in Writer magazine on how to write a rejection letter, because by then I had received so many.”
In 2017, Virginia attended the Jambalaya Writers Conference and she sent her manuscript to Cheryl Klein to critique.
“She said that I would never sell it as a middle school biography, but it would absolutely sell as a book that teachers and librarians would want to read.”
Writing friends encouraged Virginia to submit the manuscript to University Press of Mississippi.
“I got an email from Oddfellows Gallery in downtown Hattiesburg saying that Carolyn Brown was going to be there for a signing event,” Virginia recalls. “Professors and graduate students who wanted to publish their dissertations were invited to attend. I was neither a professor nor a graduate student, but I went anyway.”
University Press approved the book in 2021 and Virginia received her contract in 2022. The book, Becoming Ezra Jack Keats, was published this year.
So, who was Ezra Jack Keats? He was an American writer and illustrator of children’s books. He won the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in The Snowy Day, a book that celebrates the joy of a winter day and diversity. He is best known for introducing multiculturalism into mainstream American children’s literature, probably due to his being born to Polish-Jewish immigrants.
Despite winning many awards for drawing while in high school, Keats was unable to attend art school due to the death of his father. Instead, he used his natural artistic talent after being drafted into the military during World War II, where he designed camouflage for the U.S. Air Force. He continued illustrating and his work appeared in a variety of magazines, including Reader’s Digest, New York Times Book Review and Playboy.
When he started illustrating children’s books, he found his niche. Keats died in 1983 at the age of 67.
On August 19, she will speak at the Mississippi Book Festival on a panel at 1:30pm in the Old Supreme Court inside the state Capitol building. Other authors on the same panel include Wayne Flynt (Afternoons with Harper Lee) and Maryemma Graham (The House Where My Soul Lives). The panel will be moderated by Preselfannie McDaniels, a professor of English at Jackson State University. All authors on the panel will be available to sign their books at the book signing tent on the Capitol lawn at 3:00pm.
“This has been a fun ride,” says Virginia. “I have been to the Mississippi Book Festival every year they’ve had it, and I had no idea that I would one day be a panelist.”
Virginia still enjoys hanging out at the deGrummond Children’s Literature Collection, and writing a blog she calls “Readin’, Ritin’, but Not Much ‘Rithmatic.”