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Robert Lawson
(American, 1892-1957)
A.36.1 Lawson, Robert - House of Usher.png

One of the most prolific and notable figures in American children’s literature during the first half of the twentieth century, Robert Lawson achieved distinction both as an illustrator and as an author, winning the Caldecott Medal in 1941 for They Were Strong and Good, and the Newbery Medal in 1945 for Rabbit Hill, the story of an animal community and its relationship to the New Folks who come to the neighborhood. This feat, which no one has as yet duplicated, makes his work particularly significant in the context of American culture as well as in the history of publishing. Lawson’s contributions ranged from endpapers for T. H. White’s Sword in the Stone (1939) to illustrations for Ginn’s Mathematics for Success (1952).


Born in New York, Lawson grew up in New Jersey, graduated from art school in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, and worked as a freelance artist for several popular magazines, including Harper’s Weekly and, after the war, Delineator and Designer. In 1922, he married artist Marie Abrams, and in 1923, they moved to Westport, Connecticut, where they designed Christmas cards—one a day for three years—to pay off the mortgage.


Like Dr. Seuss, Lawson worked extensively as a commercial artist. Then his collaboration with Munro Leaf for The Story of Ferdinand (1936), although not his first venture into children’s books, brought him national and ultimately international recognition. In 1939, with Ben and Me, the story of Ben­jamin Franklin as told by the irreverent mouse Amos, he became a writer as well as an illustrator.


By 1957, he had written and illustrated twenty books and illustrated forty-six for other authors, in addition to the considerable number of drawings and etchings published before his success as a writer and illustrator for children.


As a writer, Lawson was essentially a raconteur, creating characters through dialogue rather than description. As an illustrator, he was, as critics have remarked, a traditionalist in composition and style. The demands of commercial art and his prize-winning work as an etcher made him a master of line—fluid and expressive— emphasizing his talent for visual storytelling characteristic of American art and attuned to American aesthetic sensibilities. He was so clearly of his times that he captured both its strengths and its weaknesses. His love of his country and its heroes is contagious, but his depictions of women and minorities are cliches.


Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.

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