Life Story is written as a stage play with a prologue, five acts, and an epilogue. William Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” but Virginia Lee Burton’s players also include fish, flowering plants, protozoa, millipedes, and dinosaurs. Audience members (and readers) settle into their seats and the grand drapes are pulled back to reveal the vast cosmos swirling into existence, forming stars that will make up the galaxy. An astronomer stands on the stage and narrates the events unfolding just beyond the footlights, illuminating Earth, a “red-hot fiery ball of matter.” Subsequent scenes are staged in a similar fashion, narrated by a geologist, a paleontologist, a historian, a grandmother, and finally, Burton herself.
An original illustration for the title page depicts the front of the theater with patrons purchasing tickets and waiting on line to enter. The large marquee proclaims the title “Life Story” in large letters with the subtitle up in lights. In a clever innovation that saved time, and also turned her working drawings into a kind of toy, Burton drew a version of the proscenium arch and then cut out the center so that she could overlay the stage design on each page she was working on.
As you can see in an earlier version, the timeline of animal bones and fossils appeared below the stage, as the animals acted out the period above. The illustrations are meant to show the animals as they lived on the Earth. The more dramatic events are only mentioned in the text.
A lot of the drama is created by the red curtain opening at the beginning of each act and then closing again to signified a major passage of time.
By staging the book as a play Burton was able to cast herself as a narrator and become part of the story. Life Story is also her own story and she shares her experiences with the reader.