Tuesday, April 21, 2009

They Were Strong and Good Enough for 1940

Robert Lawson, the only children's book creator to win both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards, has been the subject of a couple recent blogs. In one entry I wondered if his home, Rabbit Hill, was still standing. Today I received an interesting reply from Connie Rockman, recent editor of the BOOK OF JUNIOR AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS series and also, it turns out, the Program Coordinator of the Rabbit Hill Festival. She wrote:

Yes, Peter, there really is a Rabbit Hill, and it is still there. Since Robert and Marie Lawson had no children, the house passed out of the family and had several owners after his death in 1957. The Westport (CT) library's Rabbit Hill Festival was originally funded by a woman who lived in the Rabbit Hill house for a number of years in the 1980s and 90s. She was delighted to discover her lovely dwelling had been the home of a famous children's book writer/illustrator, collected a number of Lawson titles, and added a lovely library room onto the house. The current owners are also connected to the festival, have their own Lawson collection, and host a dinner for the Rabbit Hill Festival author/illustrator presenters every year. The house has had major additions and renovations, but the main entrance with its stone patio and brick facade looks very much the way it did when the Lawsons lived there. The Festival, in late October every year, draws an audience from all over. Each year focuses on a topic that represents a different aspect of Lawson's work - animal stories, historical fiction, biography, illustration, etc.

More information about the Festival can be found here.

Thanks, Connie, for this info!

In her note, Ms. Rockman also mentioned the recent discussion about racially-insensitive comments being expunged from later editions of RABBIT HILL. She added, "The racist comments and -- even worse -- images are most prevalent in his Caldecott winner, a book we tend to downplay in promoting his legacy."

Of course this made me eager to track down a copy of that book, THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD.

Luckily, I was able to find both a first edition and recent printing to compare the books side-by-side. Mr. Lawson's book, a history of his ancestors, has a narrative strucure that doesn't really allow for much post-publication revision -- especially in the artwork. Therefore the stereotyped racial images in the illustrations are the same today as they were when the book was first published in 1940:

There have been some changes to the text, however.

The 1940 edition reads:

When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota -- tame ones. My mother did not like them.

Today that passage reads:

When my mother was was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota. My mother did not like them.

The 1940 edition says:

When my father was very young he had two dogs and a colored boy. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilus and Numa Pompilius. The colored boy was just my father's age. He was a slave, but they didn't call him that. They just called him Dick..

The contemporary version differs:

When my father was very young he had a Negro slave and two dogs. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilus and Numa Pompilius. The Negro boy was just my father's age and his name was Dick.

I wonder what Robert Lawson himself would think about these changes. If only there was some way of contacting the long-deceased author (by Ouija board? through the Dead Letter Office?) and asking his opinion. Would he say, "The world has changed since 1940 and THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD should be changed as well"? Or would he say, "The book reflects life as it was in 1940. Don't mess with it"?

And what would he say if the question was: "Would you rather have it revised and continue to be read by later generations...or not revised and not read at all?"

Unfortunately, we'll never know his answer.

And I sure don't have any answers.

I'm sure that if someone passionately stated their "Don't revise" stance to me, I'd say, "I agree."

And if someone else passionately stated the "revising" argument, I'd also say, "I agree."

That's the way I am.


I do feel strongly that if later editions are revised, it should be noted somewhere in the book. (The later, revised editions of RABBIT HILL and THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD do not mention they've been altered.)

And, as always, I hate when later editions are lower in quality due to subpar printing and paper. In what I can only assume was a cost-cutting measure, the endpapers of the current edition of THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD are plain, white, and boring.

Yet look at the amazing endpapers from the original edition:

It's a shame that kids today can't see Lawson's family tree. That's why I always hope that people can track down the earliest copies available of any book. You never know what you'll find. Our library's first edition included this press release (click on the image for easier reading) which provides all kinds of fascinating details about the book and author, from the exact publication date (September 27, 1940) to the author's nickname (Rob) to some background about the accuracy of the text:

And the back panel of the original dustjacket provides this intriguing bit of info about the homestead called Rabbit Hill:

It seems that when the Lawsons acquired a lovely old colonial house in Westport, Connecticut, a large mortgage went with it. There came an opportunity to make designs for Christmas cards -- good pay, steady work -- and they resolved that each (Mrs. Lawson illustrates too) should turn out one card every day until the house was paid for. It took two or three years, but Mr. Lawson declares that those years were splendid training for the more important work to follow.

And the work that followed was indeed important. I'll leave it to others to decide if 1941's Caldecott winner is strong and good enough to stand the test of time without revisions. Certainly kids are still reading that book, and BEN AND ME, and THE STORY OF FERDINAND and so many other Lawson creations -- and every fall a number of children's book authors and illustrators gather for a conference bearing the name of his Newbery-winning book and have dinner in the house that Mr. and Mrs. Lawson paid for one Christmas card at a time.


Kipik said...

That's really interesting. I'm like you, i don't have an answer. But I know that if racial issues were solved we wouldn't even think about these things. So we clearly still have a lot to work on. What's right today maybe very wrong tomorrow. That's the way life goes.

Melissa (& Billy) said...

I admit that the 'tame ones' line makes every nerve in my body twinge rather sharply...

Still. There was a time when certain racial descriptors were in the common vernacular, and perhaps these serve to make us more thankful and thoughtful of where we are today. From Dick the 'colored boy' to President Obama--we have come a long way indeed.

Sarah said...

I don't recall how I came upon your blog, but I have been following it for some time. I enjoyed this post - it was very interesting and thought provoking. I especially enjoyed the bit about Lawson's card illustrations and the mortgage. :) Interesting.

I've been a fan of Lawson's illustrations/stories for some time. Thanks for sharing.

J. L. Bell said...

The fact that the revised text uses the term “Negro” suggests that the changes were made decades ago—possibly before Lawson died in 1957.

Connie Rockman said...

Thanks for the detective work on those editorial changes - I wasn't aware of them. And, of course, the text, even with revision, is still embarrassingly condescending. The book that 'should' have been Lawson's Caldecott winner is the timeless and wonderful "The Story of Ferdinand." But there's a very good reason why Ferdinand did not win the Caldecott - it was published exactly one year too soon. It would have been eligible for the 1937 award and the first Caldecott was not presented until 1938.

Kaethe said...

I'd prefer that those changes had not been made, because I think it's important to look at that sort of casual racism and think about it and talk about it.

MC said...

Thanks so much for your post. I work in a domestic violence shelter, and I purchased this book based off of a description on B&N.com which made it sound like a good book on family history etc.. and that was something I wanted to work on with the children in the program. Building a family history they could be proud of. Upon receiving the book and reading it, I can't figure out how it will work in this context. Children are very perceptive and will pickup on the subtle racism. Since many of our children are african-american and include Indian Americans, I don't think I can use it. Even the depiction of hunger is inappropriate for this population. It is interesting to see the new version in the context of the original however. Thanks so much.