During his childhood in Montclair, New Jersey, Lawson did not show any pronounced inclination to be an artist, but became seriously interested in art during high school after winning a poster contest. He went on to attend the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. Initially, Lawson aspired to be a commercial artist. To that end, after graduating, he worked in a variety of areas including magazine illustration and designing stage sets for a small theater in Greenwich Village. His service in World War I was spent designing camouflage in France with the Camouflage Section, Fortieth Engineers.
After the war, Lawson's magazine illustrations and other work eventually led him to children's book illustration. His first children's book illustrations, created for George Randolph Chester's The Wonderful Adventures of Little Prince Toofat, were published in 1922. Later that year, he was asked to provide illustrations for Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories when they were published serially in Designer magazine.
In 1922, he also married Marie Abrams, an illustrator and author in her own right. In the early days of their marriage, they supported themselves by designing greeting cards. One story goes that they each designed a greeting card every day for three years in order to earn the money to purchase their house in Westport, Connecticut. This house was named Rabbit Hill and is the setting for the book of the same name as well as its sequel, The Tough Winter. During the Great Depression, the Lawsons moved back into New York where work was more plentiful. It was during this time, in 1930, that Robert Lawson took up etching. His well-known talent for detailed draftsmanship was an asset in this endeavor. When asked to create illustrations for The Wee Men of Ballywooden by Arthur Mason, he used the etching technique. The following year (1931), he was awarded the John Taylor Arms Prize of the Society of American Etchers. Despite his success with this technique, Lawson's preferred medium remained pen and ink. He illustrated very few children's books with etchings.
The book that Robert Lawson is probably the most famous for is The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. The Story of Ferdinand was one of my particular favorites as a child. I loved the idea of a bull who did not want to fight in the bull ring, but just wanted to stay in his meadow and smell the flowers. I suppose it was the message of individuality that appealed to me. The illustrations of the matadors trying to persuade Ferdinand to charge always made me smile and I was fascinated with the notion of sitting under a cork tree (who would have imagined that corks came from the bark of trees?) My 5 or 6 year old take on this book not withstanding, it created quite a stir for different reasons. Originally released around the time of the Spanish Civil war,some people saw it as promoting an inappropriate pacifist message in a time when the world seemed destined for another conflict; others saw Communist propaganda in the story and, still others, a "glorification of fascist militarism". According to the author, Munro Leaf, it was not meant to be any of these things. He wrote the story in forty minutes one Sunday afternoon to give his friend, Robert Lawson, something to draw that "was not a cat, a mouse, a dog or a horse - something different in children's books."
Lawson's first effort as an author and illustrator was the book entitled Ben and Me, a fantasy devised to introduce young readers to Benjamin Franklin and his many accomplishments. The narrator is a mouse named Amos who becomes a dear friend of Mr. Franklin and who, incidentally, gives Ben Franklin some of his best ideas. The success of this book with young readers led Lawson to continue the idea with I Discover Columbus, Mr. Revere and I, and Captain Kidd's Cat.
As noted above, Lawson achieved striking success both as an author and as an illustrator, winning the prestigious Caldecott Award for his illustrations in They Were Strong and Good and the highly regarded Newbery Award for the text of Rabbit Hill . No other person has excelled in this way with these two complementary, but very different talents. I have mentioned his talent for detail and realism in his illustrations, but perhaps it is also his subtle sense of humor that shines through in both his illustrations and his text that helped him to achieve this distinction and that continues to ensure the popularity of both the books he has written and the ones he has illustrated.
Otter on His Own by Doe Boyle and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson
They Were Strong and Good written and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Ben and Me written and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater, illustrated by Robert Lawson
Mr. Revere and I written and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Rabbit Hill written and illustrated by Robert Lawson
The Great Wheel written and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Wa-Tonka by Joe Novara and illustrated by Robert Lawson
Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson