Libraries and schools across the world celebrate Picture Book Month each November. Pairing lyrical language with expressive art, picture books are a playful, accessible art form that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Picture books are also a uniquely democratic form of visual storytelling, allowing creators outside mainstream publishing to produce engaging narratives of regional or niche interest.
The Library’s collection includes several homegrown picture books with stories of Virginia history and culture. For instance, Clara Garrett Fountain’s The Wreck of the Old 97 (1976) depicts the infamous 1903 train wreck that claimed 11 lives outside Danville, Virginia. Fountain was an elementary school librarian, and the book was a collaboration with her students at Grove Park Elementary School in Danville. According to the afterword, Fountain wanted her students “to discover that some of our country’s history was made locally.” Her students “pushed her into writing this book, refusing to accept the fact that there was no children’s version for them to check out.”
The Wreck of the Old 97 is told in clear, vivid prose. The Old 97 train itself is an active participant in the story, fretting over its delayed schedule, enjoying a swift journey through the hills of piedmont Virginia, and growing increasingly concerned about its engineer’s dangerous behavior. Fountain’s students and young son contribute energetic illustrations of the train speeding along its route and falling dramatically from the Stillhouse Trestle—subject matter that, while tragic, was no doubt enjoyable fodder for young artists. Nevertheless, Fountain’s book is factual and poignant, embedding a quiet lesson about the human cost of valuing efficiency over safety.
Another work penned by a Virginia educator is Getty (1964), written by Elizabeth Rousch and illustrated by her sixteen-year-old student Campbell David. Worlds away from the tragedy of The Wreck of the Old 97, this quirky book follows a well-heeled young boy who lives with his stockbroker uncle in Richmond’s historic Jefferson Hotel. According to The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark by Paul N. Herbert, Rousch was a Richmond teacher who lived in the Jefferson Hotel in the 1960s. She based Getty’s uncle on a friend and fellow resident.
Getty brings to life—and gently satirizes—a lost era of affluent hotel living. Getty describes such universal boyhood experiences as taking a taxi to school, playing golf in the hotel corridors, and accidentally duping a California art critic who mistakes his painting for a work of modernist art. Charming illustrations show a freckled little boy with round-rimmed glasses entertaining himself with all the best that high society has to offer.
The book is peppered with sly asides for an older audience. Getty sells flowers to his uncle rather than gifting them, as his uncle “believes in free enterprise.” He spies on the hotel’s nightlife: “It is like being in a different world. Some of the
people act as if they are in a different world too.” He even embroils himself in a controversy over a Confederate battle flag, a satirical incident penned during an era when this flag was visible in centennial commemorations of the Civil War and anti-Civil Rights demonstrations.
In a sequel, Getty Goes to the Homestead (1967), Getty enjoys luxurious summers at the famous hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, rather than going to camp like other little boys. Even as it pokes fun at its subject matter, Getty captures the spirit of a particular moment in midcentury Virginia, inviting readers to glimpse a glamorous yet stratified world through a child’s eyes.
Picture books such as The Wreck of the Old 97 and Getty are windows into the past, serving as historical documents as well as literature. Visitors to the library can discover more Virginia children’s literature in our collection.
-Rebecca Schneider, Senior Reference Librarian