Rabbit Hill

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Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

1944

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

New Folks coming. New Folks coming. This refrain is passed from animal to animal, from Little Georgie to his Father and Mother, to Pokey the Woodchuck, Willie Fieldmouse, the Mole, Phewie the Skunk. After a period of privation, the animals are excited that the Big House on Rabbit Hill will be occupied once again. They watch as the Man, the Lady, and their old Cat, Mr. Muldoon, take up residence, plant a lush vegetable garden, and generate a bounty of kitchen scraps. (“’You will find, Phewie,’ said Father with some heat, ‘that good breeding and good garbage go hand in hand.’”) The Man and Lady celebrate the first harvest with a feast for the animals, with the words “There is Enough For All”.

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The plot does not seem like much, but this book has staying power. Robert Lawson created, largely through humorous dialogue, a distinct assortment of animal characters, beginning with the oratorical Father, variously viewed as eloquent or insufferably verbose (“He always continued until something stopped him.”), who constantly harkens back to his Kentucky bluegrass roots. There is the highstrung Mother in a perennial nervous state, the cheerful and enthusiastic Little Georgie, the folksy and curmudgeonly Uncle Analdas whose speech is peppered with “dingblasted” and “gumdinged”, and the loyal, courageous Willie Fieldmouse whose role it is to discover that Mr. Muldoon is just a harmless puffball.

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Robert Lawson is the only creator of children’s books to have been awarded both the Newberry Award (for Rabbit Hill in 1945) and the Caldecott Medal (for They Were Strong and Good, a chronicle of his forebears, in 1941). His preferred medium was pen and ink, but for Rabbit Hill, he created soft-washed pencil drawings with his meticulous hand, quite different from the bold thick-lined caricatures of The Story of Ferdinand or Wee Gillis.

After graduating from art school, Lawson joined a group of artists and designers in the Camouflage Corps in France. The military value of concealing patterning and coloration took hold during WWI and a large group of artists (including such talents as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Arshile Gorky) were recruited to design and paint camouflage disguises for war equipment and installations. There were no mass produced camouflage uniforms at the time, and it is remarkable that all such clothes, usually reserved for snipers, were individually hand-painted.

When the war was over, Lawson married and settled in Westport, Connecticut. He and his artist wife committed to each designing one Christmas card a day until the mortgage was paid off. It took three years. Their home, Rabbit Hill, was the inspiration for the book.

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Aside: “The warm sun had loosened his muscles: the air was invigorating; Little Georgie’s leaps grew longer and longer. Never had he felt so young and strong. His legs were like coiled springs of steel that released themselves of their own accord. He was hardly conscious of any effort, only of his hind feet pounding the ground, and each time they hit, those wonderful springs released and shot him through the air. He sailed over fences and stone walls as though they were mole runs. Why, this was almost like flying!”

The Story of Ferdinand

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

1936

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

As a young bull, Ferdinand prefers lying quietly under a cork tree and smelling the flowers than cavorting and butting heads with his peers.  When five men from Madrid come to select the fiercest bull for the bullfight, Ferdinand is alone in having no aspiration to be picked.  Unfortunately, he sits on a bee, his ensuing response to the sting is construed as just the fierceness and anger that are sought, and he is carted off to the city.  There, the procession of apprehensive bandilleros, picadors, and matador is followed into the bullring by a meek Ferdinand, who sits down in the center, captivated by the fragrance of the flowers in the ladies’ hats.  Robbed of the opportunity to show off their skill and daring, the men are irate.  Ferdinand is returned to his favorite cork tree, in whose shade he can continue to sniff the flowers.

Few children’s books have sparked as much controversy as this seemingly innocuous tale of a bull.  Published at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, the book was banned in Spain.  In Nazi Germany, Hitler ordered it to be burned, while in communist Russia, Stalin granted it privileged status.  In the United States, it was denounced variously as pro-fascist and pro-communist, as a paeon to pacifism and a parody of same.  Ghandi is said to have considered it his favorite book.  Munro Leaf denied that he had intended the story to have any political message and simply wrote it to amuse children.  Children, ignorant of the response of the world leaders, have enjoyed the book for over 60 years (and in 60 languages) and never fail to be delighted by Ferdinand’s response to the bee sting.

Leaf wrote the book on a yellow legal pad in a single sitting so that his friend, Robert Lawson, would have something to illustrate.  It is difficult to imagine the text in isolation from Lawson’s strong black and white line drawings.  They are startling in their boldness, the power of their caricatures of human natures, and the sophistication of their depiction of Spain.  The whimsical touches (for example, the strings of corks hanging from the cork tree) stand in contrast to the oppressive vultures or the rogues gallery of the men from Madrid with their ominous air of evil.  Leaf may not have had anything in mind other than an engaging children’s story, but Lawson’s illustrations add an unsettling sociopolitical commentary.  It is the combination of the text and illustration, the collaboration of Leaf and Lawson, that makes for the rich experience that The Story of Ferdinand provides.  Lawson’s talent as a distinctive illustrator of children’s books was honored when he received a Caldecott Award, not for The Story of Ferdinand, but for a largely forgotten book he wrote himself, They Were Strong and Good.

Aside: The Disney film, Ferdinand the Bull, won the 1938 Academy Award for Best Animated Short.  The matador was a caricature of Walt Disney, while the other men in the bullring were caricatures of Disney artists.