Robert Lawson Gave Me Animals

In my office, I have an odd cal­en­dar: an old child’s wag­on with a stack of vin­tage Jack and Jill mag­a­zines. At the begin­ning of each month, I pull out the cor­re­spond­ing month’s issue. In March, I chose March 1967, which fea­tured the TV Pre­view of “Lit­tle Georgie of Rab­bit Hill.” 

NBC Children’s The­ater aired an adap­ta­tion of Robert Lawson’s Rab­bit Hill

Little Georgie of Rabbit Hill
Lit­tle Georgie of Rab­bit Hill

It’s on YouTube, in two parts.  The pro­gram fea­tures footage of live ani­mals— rab­bits, rac­coons, mice, deer, a skunk — spliced to cre­ate the sto­ry, part­ly filmed at Lawson’s real Rab­bit Hill house, with Burl Ives’ but­tery narration. 

Born in New York City in 1892, Law­son entered a high school poster con­test with his very first draw­ing and won.  The ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is known as the Gold­en Age of Illus­tra­tion, with such lumi­nar­ies as Arthur Rack­ham, Max­field Par­rish, Jessie Will­cox Smith, and Kay Nielsen. Robert Lawson’s career blos­somed in their spot­light as he ren­dered fairies, gnomes, and sprites. His style became more real­is­tic when he shift­ed into children’s books. He and his wife moved to Con­necti­cut and built a house they called Rab­bit Hill.

illustration from The Story of Ferdinand
An illus­tra­tion from The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand, writ­ten by Munro Leaf,
illus­trat­ed by Robert Law­son, pub­lished by Viking Books for Young Read­ers in 1936 and still in print.

Lawson’s illus­tra­tions added humor and humil­i­ty to sto­ries like Fer­di­nand and Mr. Popper’s Pen­guins. It was in his own Rab­bit Hill that I once traced each blade of grass and Lit­tle Georgie’s lop­py rab­bit ears. Is there any­thing fin­er than a mid­dle grade book with inte­ri­or art? Yes, a mid­dle grade book about wood­land ani­mals with excel­lent inte­ri­or art. Robert Lawson’s linework is cer­tain, his vision reflect­ing “the clear eyes of child­hood.” In his detailed art, he want­ed to give read­ers “every­thing I know or can think of and let them do the choosing.”

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
Rab­bit Hill, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Robert Lawson

Rab­bit Hill won the New­bery Medal in 1945 (ear­li­er, he’d earned a Calde­cott). In his accep­tance speech, Law­son admit­ted that in pre­vi­ous books, he out­lined up to the last sen­tence, but with this book, he “mere­ly pushed the pen­cil and pecked at the type­writer … once it was begun, it just went ahead and wrote itself.” His ani­mal char­ac­ters seam­less­ly blend fan­ta­sy and real­ism. You believe in them because they are real animals. 

The sequel The Tough Win­ter was pub­lished to more rave reviews, includ­ing The New York Times: “There is gen­tle humor in the book’s sen­si­tive, beau­ti­ful draw­ings. The prose reflects a love of nature and respect for all small beings.” I believed in those talk­ing ani­mals with my whole heart. Rab­bits and rac­coons don’t just skulk around yards and gar­dens. They have lin­eage and back­sto­ries and set a great store by human man­ners and behavior. 

Robert Law­son also com­bined his­to­ry with ani­mals in books like Ben and Me, with a mouse telling Ben­jamin Franklin’s sto­ry, fol­lowed by Cap­tain Kidd’s Cat, I Dis­cov­er Colum­bus (par­rot nar­ra­tor), and Mr. Revere and I (the horse, of course). In each of these, the ani­mal com­pan­ions are large­ly respon­si­ble for the his­tor­i­cal person’s success.

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
Ben and Me by Robert Lawson

In 1940, Law­son wrote an arti­cle for The Horn Book, enti­tled “The Genius of Arthur Rackham.”

It begins: “Arthur Rack­ham had died and I nev­er knew it.” By 1940, the Gold­en Age illus­tra­tors were large­ly for­got­ten. Law­son was crit­i­cal of the cur­rent style of “dis­tort­ed fig­ures and a sign-painter’s tech­nique,” and admit­ted he and oth­ers had tried unsuc­cess­ful­ly to imi­tate Rack­ham, an impos­si­ble task. Law­son wrote, “I have nev­er known Rack­ham to drop below the lev­el of mas­tery by so much as a sin­gle line.  To study his work … is a rev­e­la­tion in skill and courage.”

Law­son was sor­ry he didn’t know when his idol had passed. “It must have hap­pened that evening when the rab­bits act­ed so strange­ly … In the twi­light the rab­bits came, more rab­bits than we had ever known at one time … Lat­er we heard a fox bark and saw the vague shad­ows of deer.  There were tiny rustlings in the grass and we felt that some­where, Some­thing had happened.”

The same could be said of Robert Law­son when he left this world in 1957.  I didn’t watch much of the TV spe­cial, pre­fer­ring to reex­pe­ri­ence the skill and courage of Rab­bit Hill through his words and pictures.

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