More about Robert Lawson

FerdinandMr. Popper's PenguinsLawson’s career as an illustrator is best know from The Story of Ferdinand (1936), and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1939).  But his first effort was for a truly terrible sounding book, The Wonderful Adventures of Little Prince Toofat (1922). He also illustrated for, among others, Margery Williams (of Velveteen Rabbit fame, though he didn’t illustrate that). Over the years you can see the emergence of Lawson’s characteristic style (left to right: frontispiece from Prince Toofat; The Wee Men of Ballywooden; From the Horn of the Moon; The Hurdy-Gurdy Man).

Little Prince Toofat

Wee Men of Ballywooden

From the Horn of the Moon

Hurdy Gurdy Man





I Discover Columbus

Mr. Revere and I

Captain Kidd's Cat

After his success with authoring Ben and Me (1939), he wrote three more books with the same concept — a historical character seen through the eyes of a companion animal. These were I Discover Columbus (1941), Mr. Revere and I (1953), and Captain Kidd’s Cat (1956).

They Were Strong and Good

Rabbit Hill

Mr. Twigg's Mistake-1ysnmvg

He also tried his hand at several other kinds of stories. His next effort after Ben and Me was They Were Strong and Good (1940), a fictionalized account of some of his ancestors. The irony of the book’s title was apparently lost on him when he was writing about his family owning slaves, or looking down on the Native Americans whose land they were squatting on. Lawson’s toe-the-line patriotism (“None of them were great or famous, but they were strong and good. They worked hard and had many children. They all helped to make the United States the great nation that it now is. Let us be proud of them and guard well the heritage they have left us.“) strikes me as particularly nauseous, as I am currently reading some works by post-Civil-War black authors like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. duBois. I’m kind of fed up to my teeth with the excuse that people didn’t know any better back in 1940. They knew perfectly well. They just thought it was A-OK.

Rabbit Hill (1944) is very much in the tradition of folksy fables peopled by talking animals. Mr. Twigg’s Mistake (1947) is about an overdose of vitamins that causes things to grow outlandishly big. Neither of them are especially interesting or well-written by today’s standards, and both contain hints of racism.

Overall, I would count Robert Lawson as “Overrated.” I find his drawing style unappealing (stiff and unnatural on a large scale, creepily over-realistic in the details), though he initially earned his reputation as an illustrator. And he never became more than a merely adequate story-teller, though he rode the wave a couple of high-profile awards.

Still, I did enjoy Mr. Revere and I.

Ben and Me (1939)

Ben and MeI wish I’d picked a different book to read this week! I read Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I as a child and quite liked it. But Ben and Me was illustrator Lawson’s first attempt and authoring, and it is a clumsy effort.

A mouse named Amos comes to live in Benjamin Franklin’s house and gets involved with his experiments and other work. At first the conceit is that Ben isn’t particularly bright, and most of his ideas come from Amos. But that gets dropped in favor of Amos being an unreliable narrator, thinking he’s “helping” when he’s making things worse. Then both of those get dropped for the idea that Ben simply has a dangerous mania for electricity. But the least appealing part of the book is that Ben and Amos have a unpleasant, antagonistic kind of “loyalty” to each other, sometimes crossing the line into cruelty.

Still, Lawson gets credit for taking a rather dreary genre of children’s books, the fictionalized account of colonial American history (think Johnny Tremain or The Matchlock Gun), and treating it irreverently and humorously, in a way that an actual kid might want to read.

What I found most interesting, though, is that it was clearly source material for two later and much more famous books about sentient mice.

Stuart Little

First there is Stuart Little (1945). It is impossible to read about Stuart’s little conveniences and arrangements, his vehicles and his meals, and not be reminded of Amos. (Top right: Stuart. Bottom left and right: Amos.)

Stuart Little bed





Ben and Me Amos

Ben and Me Amos 2







RescuersThe second is The Rescuers (1959), which likewise gets a lot of fun out of mice making a cosy life in human habitation.

Rescuers pipe fireplaceBut the inspiration goes much further. Amos goes with Ben to France, where he visit embassies and meets a beautiful aristocratic white mouse who needs his help. Amos is rough and inelegant compared to her, but is stalwart and resourceful. With the help of a third (boy) mouse, they stage a daring rescue. (Top right: Miss Bianca, Nils, and Bernard of The Rescuers. Bottom left: Miss Bianca and Bernard. Bottom right: Madame Sophia and Amos watching a French aristocrat.)

Rescuers Miss Bianca

Ben and Me aristocrat mouse








Next week, more about Robert Lawson, who also illustrated Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Story of Ferdinand, and was also kind of a big awful racist.

Anthropomorphized Animals III

Eventually, the animal fable developed in so many directions that it stopped being a Thing. There’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939, a surprisingly woke book for its time, by the author of the play that Porgie and Bess is based on); Rabbit Hill (1944); The Rescuers (1959); A Cricket in Times Square (1960); Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971); and Watership Down (1972). All of these break out of the animal fable in one way or another, developing new forms.

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 4.36.46 PM

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 4.29.13 PMPerhaps closest to the original genre, in mid-century, were the books of Eve Titus, including the Anatole series (1956 onward) and the Basil of Baker Street series (1958 onward).




mr. and mrs. bunnyWhile all kinds of sentient-animal stories have been published in more recent years, there is nothing quite like the absurdist throwback, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire (2012). It starts in a fairly realistic way, with a girl named Madeline being raised by hippie artist parents on Hornby Island in Puget Sound. But then her parents get kidnapped by, um, foxes, and she has to enlist the help of bunnies. Bunnies who wear fedoras.

Anthropomorphized Animals, Part II

magic pudding

As much in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland as animal fables, Australia’s first contribution to the genre is The Magic Pudding (1918). It concerns three bombastic characters who own a magic pudding, which mouths off and runs away if you don’t watch it and is never used up no matter how much you eat. As in many other animal-fable style stories, humans and animals mix together in society without any apparent differentiation.

Aimed at younger children, the plot consists of repeated ruses by some puddin’ thieves to run off with the pudding, always ending with the thieves being punched on the snout and the puddin’ owners sitting down to feast. There is lots of nonsense poetry, characters who appear out of nowhere and do ridiculous things, and lines like “This is not a puddin’ thief, this is an Uncle,” and “at this season puddin’-thieves generally go south-east, owing to the price of onions.”

alice mongoose

One year later came the publication of the first Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat book, whose author is sometimes called Hawaii’s Beatrix Potter. (Hawaii at the time was still decades away from statehood, and was much more distant from the U.S., both culturally and in terms of travel time, than it is today. )

The book itself is merely a long picture book, but there are sequels that continue the tale, together forming a respectable-sized book. Alice Mongoose is born in India, but decides to go seek her fortune by answering a job advertisement in Hawaii. She is shocked to discover that her job is supposed to be killing rats, and instead she befriends her next-door neighbor, Alistair Rat. Together they have friendly adventures such as setting up a restaurant together, and celebrating Christmas.

squirrel hare little grey rabbit

While Magic Pudding and Alice Mongoose moved with the times and reached in new directions, the works of Alison Uttley were almost aggressively retro. Her first effort was The Squirrel, the Hare, and the Little Grey Rabbit (1929), followed by numerous other tales about Sam Pig, Tim Rabbit, Little Brown Mouse, and of course Little Grey Rabbit. The attempt to recreate the world of Beatrix Potter is clear.

Alison Uttley is better known today for her novel for older kids, A Traveller in Time (1939). This is an overly-literary, overly-historical time travel book, which I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish. She was a neighbor of Enid Blyton, whom she detested, considering her vulgar. She was right, Blyton was vulgar, but I’m not sure that Uttley’s self-consciously cultured and refined persona makes her any “better.”

Freddy goes to Floridafreddy the detectiveNext up is Freddy Goes to Florida (1927), about a pig and his friends from the farm who decide to go south for the winter. By the third book Freddy has read Sherlock Holmes and decided to become a detective, and his detective adventures dominate the remainder of the series. (He is also clearly a precursor to Basil of Baker Street, to be discussed later).

travels of babar

Also clearly influenced by the animal-fable genre were the Babar books, written by a French author. Like many books whose world is a bit lacking in internal logic, these started as bedtime stories for a child (as did Wind in the Willows, incidentally).

The first book was published in 1931, but I’m using the cover of the second book because it’s a better illustration of the anthropomorphic lives of these elephants. In parts the world of the animals almost makes sense, as when the elephants battle with the rhinoceroses in the first book (though don’t get me started on the colonialist vibe); but when elephants interact with humans things get seriously weird. The author “puts a lampshade” on this with a joke in Barbar and Father Christmas:

Babar no crown

blinky bill

Blinky Bill frontispieceThen Australia got into the act with Blinky Bill, a much sweeter and cuter set of stories than The Magic Pudding. The first book, Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian (1933), is represented here by its color frontispiece, which shows Blinky as an infant being baptised (as koalas do).

Blinky Bill movieBlinky bill tvBlinky Bill became a cultrual icon in Australia, spawning two television series’, a movie, and video game.

That’s a wrap for our 1920’s and ’30’s books. We’ll talk about a few later descendents of the genre next week.



Anthropomorphized Animals, Part I

Animals wearing clothes and buying things in shops, generally conducting their affairs like humans, sometimes actually alongside humans without the humans thinking there’s anything strange about it . . . this sort of thing found its way into children’s novels by a strange and circuitous route.

peter rabbit

Before there was the English Wind in the Willows and the American Old Mother West Wind, there were Beatrix Potter’s short fables. I always thought of Potter as a mid-to-late Victorian, making her citizen-scientist contributions to mycology and her naturalist’s drawings of wildlife. But her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, wasn’t published until 1902.

(As a side-note, Potter’s modern reputation for sweet cosy stories is bizarrely out of touch with reality. Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail, the Two Bad Mice smash up the doll house, rats try to eat Tom Kitten, and Ginger and Pickles is flat-out gothic.)

But back to my main point. Potter didn’t invent the genre. She was inspired by, of all things, the very American Uncle Remus books, which are stories from the African American oral tradition (recorded, sadly, by racist white dude Joel Chandler Harris). And these, of course, trace back to the animal fables of West Africa.

This kind of thing bounced back and forth across the Atlantic several more times, with a distinctive American or British stamp in each case.

mr. woodchuck

L. Frank Baum got into the act in 1905, with a set of short booklets collectively called the Twinkle Tales, published under the pseudonym Laura Bancroft.

(Baum tried his hand at everything. He wrote boys’ adventure stories under the names Floyd Akers and Captain Hugh Fitzgerald, and more ladylike stories for girls under the names Edith Van Dyne and Suzanne Metcalf, as well as a veritable firehose of works under his own name.)


wind in the willows paul bransom

In 1908 England gave us Wind in the Willows, represented here by an image from the earliest illustrator, Paul Bransom, from 1913. (The original edition wasn’t illustrated, and the iconic pictures by Ernest Shepard didn’t appear until 1931.)



old mother west wind

And in 1910 America shot back with Old Mother West Wind, the first of naturalist Thorton Burgess’s numerous books about Reddy Fox, Johnny Chuck, Peter Cottontail, and the rest.

My mother had this book as a child and I still have her copy, with that exact cover. (Picture swiped from internet, though.) The only thing I remember from reading it as a child is how Old Mother West Wind would bring out her children, the Little Breezes, in a sack, and set them loose to play all day in the meadow. In a way it’s a sweet idea, but . . . she keeps her children in a sack?

in fableland

I also have my mother’s copy of In Fableland, which originally belonged to her mother. Published in 1911 by an educator who mostly wrote reading primers, it is not high in originality. The stories are retellings of Aesop’s fables, and to capitalize on the going trend the drawings feature animals dressed up like 1910’s working-class Americans.




in fableland 2
End papers from In Fableland. Again, picture swiped from internet, not my grandmother’s copy.

Next week we’ll visit Anthropomorphized Animals as they changed after WWI.

Uncle Wiggily

Addendum: I forgot to mention Uncle Wiggily, by American Howard R. Garis. The first book in the series appeared in 1912.

The Uncomfortable History of Norse Fandom

heros of asgardTranslations and re-tellings of Norse legends for children and adults were popular well before Tolkien. The list of them becomes almost comical when lined up one after the other:

Popular Tales from the Norse (1859), The Heros of Asgard (1871), Norse Stories (1882), Legends of Norseland (1894), The Nine Worlds (1894), Myths of Northern Lands (1895), Old Norse Stories (1900), Asgard Stories (1901), In the Days of Giants (1902), Norroena (1906), Myths of the Norsemen (1909), Stories from the Norseland (1909), and Children of Odin (1920).

(Seriously? How did publishers keep finding a market for these? You’d think they’d have reached saturation.)

viking societyworm of ouroborosIn the early years of adult fantasy fiction we have The Worm Ouroboros (1922), by Eric Rücker Eddison. Eddison was a member of the “Viking Society for Northern Research,” a society founded in 1892 that took itself rather too seriously; he was also an occasional member of the Inklings. Worm leans heavily on Norse as well as other mythologies, and is a repellent tale of bloodshed and war. It ends with the Demon Lords having a sad because everyone worth killing is dead. So the gods restart everything (that’s the “serpent eating it’s tail” part) so that the world can experience all that glorious stabbing again. Eddison reportedly found Tolkien’s world-view too soft, which tells us something.

The Nazi’s liked Norse imagery too. While Himmler was the main champion of overt Norse mysticism, more generally a Norse/Viking/Teutonic aesthetic was part of the crass pastiche of Nazi iconography.

trumpkinTolkien and Lewis were fans of Wagner, whose works slid neatly into the Nazi world-view and were easily exploited by them. Tolkien and Lewis studied his works as part of their Kólbitar Club, a precursor to the Inklings, begun in 1926 for the purpose of studying all things Norse. Later, in the aftermath of WWII, Tolkien distanced himself from Wagner (he was shocked — shocked! — at comparisons between his work and the Ring Cycle), while Lewis’s enthusiasm continued unabated (he wanted to write a prose version of the Ring Cycle).

smaugTolkien expressed his contempt for Nazis and their anti-semitism in 1938, when England was marshalling its forces against possible German aggression; but both Tolkien and Lewis developed a muddled-headed man-crush on poet Roy Campbell, champion of Franco’s fascist regime. Tolkien compared him to Aragorn, and both writers became Franco supporters. It is also clear from their writings that they were both drawn to autocratic rule and glorified violence. It would appear to the casual observer that what they opposed was the specific German program against which England had formed a consensus, and not fascism per se on any principled grounds.

king solomon's ringgood masterIt’s uncomfortable to realize that, lacking the benefit of hindsight, many people were drawn to aspects of the fascist aesthetic, even if they were not full-blown fascists. It appears in the children’s books such as The Good Master (1935) and The Singing Tree (1940) by Kate Seredy, in which the Nazi aesthetic of worship of youth and strength is palpable; and also in the breath-takingly wonderful King Solomon’s Ring (1949) by naturalist Konrad Lorenz, whose preference for healthy, strong plants and animals slides by barely noticed, until you learn that Lorenz was a Nazi supporter.

The same tension can be found in reactions to the work of Leni Riefenstal, the artistically talented and morally stunted photographer who created tour-de-force propaganda films for the Nazis. After the war she went on to something that appears completely different, photographing the Nuba people of Sudan. But her focus on glorifying animalistic youth and strength in these photographs led Susan Sontag to describe them as having a “Nazi aesthetic.” Sontag got a lot of blow-back for this, but honestly, she nailed it.

ship that flew 2But in contrast, there are children’s books that rode the wave of Norse popularity right up to the eve of WWII, without even a whiff of war-glorifying, heroic-brute aesthetic. One notable example is The Ship the Flew (1939), by Hilda Lewis, in which four ordinary children find the god Frey’s magical ship Skidbladnir, which can sail on land or sea or air through time as well as space, and can fold up small enough to fit in one’s pocket. It reads more like an E. Nesbit book of 30 years earlier than anything else. It is fun and adventurous, and lets child readers indulge their ancient-cultures mania in a pretty much unproblematic way.

Monday has been rescheduled for Tuesday

Due to the holiday and family, I will be posting today’s post tomorrow.

Please enjoy this illustration from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, illustrations by Marc Simont. I particularly like how the duke’s spy, Hark, manages to look plausibly evil while also being kindly.

It has come to my attention that a later edition used illustrations by Ronald Searle, which is just an appallingly bad idea:

Searle's illustration from 'The 13 Clocks' by James Thurber.

Roller Skates and All-of-a-Kind Family

roller skatesall-of-a-kind familyRoller Skates and All-of-a-Kind Family both take place in New York City near the turn of the 20th century, but the worlds they inhabit are very different. Roller Skates’ Lucinda is an upper class society girl who spends a year in less-fashionable mid-town. All-of-a-Kind Family is about eastern European Jewish immigrants living in the tenaments of the lower east side.

In Roller Skates, Lucina meets a “Rags and Bottles man,” a trash-picker who lives in the same cellar where he sorts his rubbish. He is described thus: “His face was covered with stubble growth, his clothes were the pick of rag heaps. He was dirty. . . . He smiled, and over the smile his eyes showed friendly, like a dog’s. . . . Here was kin to the earth, the sun, the creatures; someone benignly elemental.”

“Old Rags-and-Bottles” is not of the same world as Lucinda. To her he is a curiosity, almost an animal.

Pop quiz: If you ever read All-of-a-Kind Family, do you remember what the father does for a living? Yep, he’s a junk dealer. He’s fortunate enough to be the guy who sits in the cellar and buys the rags from the rag-pickers, and sorts them and bundles them. But his friends are the rag-pickers themselves, and they come and sit around his warm stove on rainy days.

all-of-a-kind shop

rag pickers ny 1896
Rag pickers, New York City, 1896


The parents in All-of-a-Kind Family are not as youthful as they look in the illustrations. They’re drawn to look like they’re in their 20’s, but they were almost 40 at the time of the first book.

I found this photo of the family on It must be from a few years before the book is set, since the youngest (that would be Gertie) can’t be more than 2 in the photo and in the book she is 4.

all of a kind family photo

What is most striking to me, though, is how small the two oldest children are. I’m hazarding a guess that the oldest, Ella, is the one on the far left, only because her hair is longer than the girl on the far right, who would be Henrietta. In this photo, Ella would be about 10, and she is not much taller than Sarah/Sydney (standing in front of the mother), who would be only 6. (Consider the position of their feet, in thinking about their height.) Ella was born while the family was still in Europe, and made the difficult passage to the U.S. as a baby. Henrietta was born a year after arrival.

Returning to the rag-picker issue, All-of-a-Kind Family is set about 1912, a couple of decades later than Roller Skates; but I like to imagine that Old Rags-and-Bottles might have known some of the men who hung out around the Papa’s stove on rainy days.


America Does Folk Europe

folk europe

The picture kind of says it all!

In the 1920’s and ’30’s there was a wave of books about Scandinavian, Slavic, Baltic, and other European cultures (basically, northern, central/eastern, and southern Europe), featuring lots of traditional dress and folk art.

Heavily dominating the field were Dutch books (represented here by The Dutch Twins); but there was also this wider phenomenon. In addition to the books pictured above, there was The Trumpeter of Krakow; Children of the Mountain Eagle; Vaino: A Boy of New Finland; Mountains are Free; and the English translation of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

our little norwegian cousinswiss twins 2The trend originated in the 1910’s with some fairly instructional “children of other lands” series’, including the Twins books and the Our Little Cousin books. These arose in the wake of waves of immigration from various parts of Europe to the U.S., presenting teachers and librarians with a rather different mix of kids than they were used to. Eventually such books broke out of their stodgy, educational niche and took on a certain literary cachet. Several of the books pictured up top are Newbery winners or runners-up.

bayou suzettehenner's lydiaI’ve spotted two later outgrowths of the trend. The first are books of the 1940’s and ’50’s about American children of different heritages or from different regional cultures, particularly the books of Marguerite de Angeli and Lois Lenski.

mrs. pepperpotcomet in moominland 2The second might be called the Scandinavian Invasion: translations of northern European authors into English starting in the 1950’s. This of course includes Pippi Longstocking, but also others such as the Moomin books and the Mrs. Pepperpot books. (That’s not the first Mrs. Pepperpot book, but it was the only cover I could find with the original illustrator.)

It’s also not an accident that those are both Puffin books (a U.K. imprint of Penguin). Many of these books first gained popularity in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries, and only much later made inroads in the U.S. I first met the Moomins and Mrs. Pepperpot in Canada during our year there when I was seven.