In Memoriam: Lee Kingman Natti (1919–2020)

Editor, author, artist, and designer Lee Kingman Natti’s association with The Horn Book, Inc., spanned eighty years — surely a record. Bertha Mahony, founder of The Horn Book Magazine and owner of The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, gave the nine-year-old Lee advice on choosing ten free books from the bookshop, her prize for winning the Magazine’s 1928–1929 Reading Contest. One of Lee’s “book notes” was published in the November 1929 issue of The Horn Book. Starting in the 1940s, the Magazine reviewed titles Lee edited at Houghton Mifflin, including Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton, and several of the Curious George books. Later, reviews of her own books for children and young adults appeared in these pages (Pierre Pidgeon, The Best Christmas, The Peter Pan Bag, and many more). Eventually, she came full circle, advising Bertha and subsequent Horn Book editors when she served on the Horn Book Council and its Board of Directors.


Her career in publishing began in 1942, when Grace Allen Hogarth, who created Houghton Mifflin’s children’s book department in Boston, chose Lee to be her first-ever assistant. A year and a half later, Grace moved to England, and Lee stepped into her job as children’s book editor at the age of twenty-four. Before Grace left, Houghton sent Lee to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for two weeks to study art with sculptor George Demetrios, Virgina Lee ­Burton’s husband. In a 2008 ­conversation, Lee said,

You can learn a lot about what not to draw in two weeks…It was my job to choose the artists to illustrate the books, so I had to be able to know: Is their art really accurate? Is it good? Does it create something? Is there a feeling about it? So working with George, I got to know whether the bones were in the right place.

The art class was a pivotal experience. During those two weeks, Lee met her future husband, Robert Natti (who was modeling for Demetrios while on furlough from the army), and was intro­duced to Burton’s Folly Cove design studio, famously based in Gloucester, which Lee would later join. To become a member of the Folly Cove group, one had to apprentice first, studying the craft of linoleum block printing and fabric design with Virginia Lee Burton. Designs needed to be accepted by the members, who had very high standards; Lee’s designs were sold locally and in Johnny Appleseed’s catalogs.

I met Lee when I worked as the Horn Book receptionist in the 1980s, back when we still published books about children’s books — required reading for new employees. My favorite of the books Lee edited for The Horn Book was The Illustrator’s Notebook. When she visited the office, she was friendly and fun to talk to, so I started reading her middle-grade and young adult books. Several years later, when I rejoined the Horn Book staff as their first in-house designer, Lee offered advice and encouragement. Visiting her Gloucester home — filled with pottery and furniture made by her husband and son, Folly Cove curtains and placemats designed by Lee, and of course plenty of books and art — became one of my favorite day trips. She was a kindred spirit, enjoying the outdoors and making useful objects by hand, and of course we had an interest in children’s books, illustration, and design in common. She always offered encouragement and advice — and never failed to tack on a message to editor in chief Roger Sutton, usually about how to improve the Magazine’s coverage of illustrated books.

My last visit with Lee was in October 2017. Her daughter, Susanna Natti (whose own daughter, Kate Willsky, was a Horn Book intern in the early 2000s), was there, and we had a lively conversation about art. Susanna, herself an artist and illustrator, is now happily retired, and at Lee’s urging she showed me some of her recent sculptures. As always, we talked about what was happening in publishing and discussed some favorite new books and illustrators.

When Lee died, Susanna emailed Roger Sutton:

I thought you would want to know that my mother, Lee Kingman Natti, died on Sunday afternoon, May 31. She was 100 years old, with all her faculties intact until the end, I’m glad to be able to say…The Horn Book was an important thread throughout her long life, as you know.

Lee Kingman Natti was an equally important thread throughout The Horn Book’s life. It was an honor to know her and learn from her, and we will miss her.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is a freelance designer and consultant with degrees in studio art and children’s literature. She is the former creative director for The Horn Book, Inc., and has taught children’s literature at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogged for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.


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