Robert Burch's groundbreaking juvenile books about boys and girls growing up in the countryside and small towns of Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s won the Fayette County native national recognition and widespread reader affection. The author of 19 published works for children between 1959 and 1986, Burch won awards from librarians, teachers, and his fellow writers, and he received the Georgia Governor's Award for excellence in literature for his painstaking children's novels and picture books. Most importantly, his tales of realistic childhoods complete with life's mixed lessons and endings won the love of a generation of schoolchildren, including thousands of Georgia youngsters who on three separate occasions voted Burch's books their favorites.
One of eight brothers and sisters, Burch was born in Inman, Georgia, and grew up during the Depression on a family farm outside Fayetteville, an experience that provided much of the inspiration for his writing. "Some of my books are set in the past," Burch wrote in 1971, "and in them I hope to give boys and girls of today a glimpse of what it was like to have lived during the Depression years, when almost everyone was poor. At the same time, I try to show that we sometimes had ourselves a pretty good time back then and that there are lots more things important than money or material wealth anyway."
In 1943 when he was eighteen Burch joined the Army and served in World War II in the South Pacific theater, New Guinea and Australia. Following the war he returned to Georgia, majored in horticulture at the University of Georgia, and earned a Bachelor's degree in agriculture. It was not until several years later, after a series of jobs that included civil service with the U.S. Army in Japan, and travel in Asia, Africa and Europe, that Burch began writing classes at Hunter College in New York. There he was encouraged by Dr. William Lind, an anthropologist and a successful co-author of a young children's series, and in 1959 the New York publisher McDowell, Obolensky published Burch's first book, a picture book for young children entitled The Traveling Bird.
Burch wrote later that when young he harbored the desire to be a farmer, less from a love of the soil than from having grown up among farm animals he and his siblings frequently turned into pets. Burch drew on this interest in The Traveling Bird, a story about a young boy and a talkative parakeet who helps him get a dog, as well as in his next two books, which were also picture books for young children, A Jungle in the Wheat Field (adapted from a Danish story by Egon Mathieson) and A Funny Place to Live.
With Tyler, Wilkin, and Skee (1963) Burch published the first of what would become his specialty, stories of slightly older elementary-school children or adolescents growing up in Depression-era Georgia. He would eventually publish six other books set in this locale and period, all however with their own innovative twists and different characters: Skinny (1964), D.J.'s Worst Enemy (1965), Renfroe's Christmas (1968), Wilkin's Ghost (1978), Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain (1980) and Christmas with Ida Early (1983).
Burch's best known book is Queenie Peavy (1966), which also takes place in 1930s Georgia, but which is set not in the country but rather in a small town called "Cotton Junction, Georgia." Queenie is a 13-year-old tomboy whose father is serving time in the Atlanta federal prison for armed robbery, and Burch's tale of her difficult adolescence has been reprinted several times. Designated an American Library Award notable book, Queenie Peavy has won numerous awards, including the Jane Addams Book Award and the annual Merit Award of the George C. Stone Center for Children's Books.
Burch also occasionally changed time frames while continuing to set stories in rural or small town Georgia. Hut School and the Wartime Home-Front Heroes is the story of another independent and adventurous adolescent girl who lives in a small town outside Atlanta, but this time he sets the story a few years later, during World War II. The Whitman Kick (1977) explores issues of sexual maturity through the story of 17-year-old Alan Ponder, another boy from a small town outside Atlanta who, as the story opens in 1942, has enlisted in the Army at Fort McPherson. In Simon and the Game of Chance (1970), Doodle and the Go Cart (1972), Two that were Tough (1976), and King Kong and Other Poets (1986), all of which Burch set in contemporary, Fayette County-like settings, his trademark quiet humor and bittersweet tone again enliven and sustain realistic young characters who tackle minor lessons in maturity and identity, or learn from their encounters with life's big changes like mental illness, old age, or death.
Burch's work for young readers has been translated into Danish and German, and anthologized numerous times in textbooks and school readers. Citing the remarkable attention Burch paid to accurately portray Depression-era Georgia in detail and setting, the University of Georgia Press republished four of his novels - Tyler, Wilkin and Skee; Skinny; D.J.'s Worst Enemy; and Renfroe's Christmas. The popularity of Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain was such that it was adapted for television as an NBC movie, The Incredible Ida Early in 1987. On three separate occasions - for Skinny, Queenie Peavy, and Doodle and the Go Cart - his books have won the Georgia Children's Book Awards, an annual award drawn from the nominations of teachers and school librarians, then voted upon by Georgia school children in grades 4-8. Burch was voted Georgia author of the year twice (1970 for Joey's Cat, 1975 for Hut School and the Home-Front Heroes) by fellow Georgia writers who made up the Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists. In 1976, the Georgia Council for the Arts presented him with the Governor's Award for Excellence in literature, and in 2007 he was honored by the University of Georgia Libraries' first annual Porter Kellam Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1966 when awarding Burch the Georgia Writers Association's Literary Achievement Award, Georgia author Wylly Folk St. John's praised Burch as:
[A] writer who represents the best in both style and content, who has brought renown to Georgia by receiving national honors and awards in his field... he presents the Georgia scene with vivid realism, from the viewpoint of such true-to-life characters as the children in his books, and yet his stories have such universal appeal that children everywhere can identify with the characters and their problems and will continue to do so for generations to come.
A longtime resident of Fayetteville, Robert Burch died December 25, 2007, after an extended illness.
The following works by Burch are found in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection:
The Traveling Bird. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
A Funny Place To Live. New York: Viking Press, 1962.
Tyler, Wilkin, and Skee. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
Skinny. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
D.J.'s Worst Enemy. New York: Viking Press, 1965.
Queenie Peavy. New York: Viking Press, 1966.
Renfroe's Christmas. New York: Viking Press, 1968.
Joey's Cat. New York: Viking Press, 1969.
Simon and the Game of Chance. New York: Viking Press, 1970.
The Hunting Trip. New York: Scribner, 1971.
Doodle and the Go-Cart. New York: Viking Press, 1972.
Hut School and the Wartime Home-Front Heroes. New York: Viking Press, 1974.
The Jolly Witch. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Two That Were Tough. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
The Whitman Kick. New York: Dutton, 1977.
Wilkin's Ghost. New York: Viking Press, 1978.
Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain. New York: Viking Press, 1980.
Christmas with Ida Early. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
King Kong and Other Poets. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1986.
Tyler, Wilkin, & Skee. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Skinny. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Renfroe's Christmas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
D.J.'s Worst Enemy. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
The Robert Burch Papers are held by the University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.