The Rare Book Department at the Free Library is lucky to own the papers of children’s book author and illustrator Robert Lawson, donated by the rare book dealer and collector Frederick R. Gardner. Thanks to a Council on Library and Information Resources grant, I have been able to process this amazing collection of original artwork, including the perennial favorites The Story of Ferdinand and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. With more than 1200 illustrations, it was easy to see the virtuosity and diversity of Lawson’s art and imagination (Flying bicycles! Giant moles! Suburban dragons!). It also didn’t take long for me to discover a recurring theme in many of the books: the animal companions of famous men. We have the original art for the four children’s books Robert Lawson wrote and illustrated on animals witnessing moments in history.
First was Ben and Me (1939), which was the first book Robert Lawson both wrote and illustrated. Of course, the conceit of the book is that it wasn’t written by Lawson at all, but discovered (and illustrated) by him. The book is a biography of Benjamin Franklin, “as written by his Good Mouse Amos.” Amos has been driven to set the record straight about all of Franklin’s storied accomplishments: “I simply hope to see justice done, credit given where credit is due, and that’s to me – mostly.” Readers learn about the invention of the Franklin stove, see a more farcical side of Franklin’s experiments with electricity (and public bathing, see right), and learn the identity of the true author of the Declaration of Independence (Red, the “fiery revolutionist” mouse who stowed away in Thomas Jefferson’s saddlebag). Indeed, Amos is entirely to thank for Franklin’s trip to appeal to France for revolutionary aid, having reminded Franklin of the comparative glories of their pastry, wines, and beautiful women. Lawson’s characteristic humor finds its mouthpiece in the none-too-humble Amos, who explains his motivations with the caution that “Ben was undoubtedly a splendid fellow, a great man, a patriot and all that; but he was undeniably stupid at times.”
Its good humor and wholesome patriotism made the book a success – it is still in print today – and Lawson soon began writing more of his own material. Mr. Revere and I is the redemptive tale of Scherezade, “the most admired mount of the Queen’s Own Household Cavalry,” who had been reduced to being a lowly carthorse for the glue factory before Sam Adams commandeers her for Paul Revere’s revolutionary duties. Mr. Revere and I, a longer book for older children, is more strictly historical than Ben and Me. Accordingly, the art is more realistic, the story less fanciful, and the book lacks the endearingly corny humor of the earlier book.
Not quite as serious as Mr. Revere and I or quite as jolly as Ben and Me is 1941’s I Discover Columbus. The “I” doing the discovering is Aurelio, the homesick talking parrot lost in Spain who meets the ambitious (if terribly seasick) Don Christobol Colon and tricks him into a voyage to South America. The last entry on this model is Captain Kidd’s Cat (1956), one of Robert Lawson’s final books. It’s a revisionist history of Captain Kidd, set down by his faithful pirate cat, McDermot. Kidd, it seems, was not so much a pirate as an honorable merchant, cursed with the tragic flaw of being too trusting of his friends. Thankfully for readers, however, Kidd did captain a ship full of grizzled pirates, complete with peg legs, cutlasses, and ample rum. Although not as well-remembered some of Lawson’s other works, Captain Kidd’s Cat has some of the most entertaining representations of scoundrels I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. After all, even McDermot is never pictured without his ruby earring (see right), looted from the Spanish Main. We encourage you to come by the Free Library and check out some of the awesome art for yourself!