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They Were Strong and Good Transcript
They Were Strong and Good, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson, won the Caldecott Award for most distinguished American picture book in 1941. It is the story of Lawson’s parents and his two sets of grandparents, where they came from, how they met, what they did, where they lived. It is an ordinary family story of the nineteenth century: immigrating to America, working hard, fighting wars, moving west, and raising large families. “None of them,” Lawson says in the preface, speaking of his ancestors, “were great or famous, but they were strong and good.”
Most of the double page spreads feature a factual text on the left hand side of the page and a full page black and white pen and ink drawing on the right hand side. The text does not carry much emotion; it is simply a narrative retelling of selected events in the lives of his parents and grandparents: the day a parrot on his grandfather’s ship consumed a hat; how Native Americans walked into their house in Minnesota and sat on the floor until they were given something to eat; and how his father, as a twelve year old, carried a stash of gold coins to a safe place during the Civil War. The illustrations don’t carry a lot of nuance and shading either. The portrait drawings of his grandparents and parents, for example, look boldly out at the reader, their unsmiling faces imbued with that stoic confidence seen in nineteenth century portrait photography. Other illustrations delineate action, but the black and white rendering makes them also stark and unemotional. Like the text, the illustrations are straightforward and effectively lay out the facts. Like the ancestors, the illustrations are not flashy, but they are strong and good.
In his Caldecott acceptance speech, Lawson notes that retelling the family stories he heard as a child was the easy part. The difficult part, he said, was being both the writer and the illustrator of a children’s book. “Ordinarily,” he writes, “I get a manuscript from the publishers and illustrate it pretty much as I please. But when it’s my own manuscript, I, the illustrator, may have a great deal of fault to find with the story that I, the author, have given myself to illustrate. And, of course, as the author, I’m sure that the illustrator isn’t doing justice to my story at all. By the time the book is finished,” he adds, “we’re hardly on speaking terms.”1 Fortunately, in this case, the illustrator part of him and the author part of him cooperated well enough to produce a book which ably demonstrates for young readers pride in one’s origins and a deep appreciation for one’s country.
1 Lawson, They Were Strong and Good, dust jacket.
Lawson, Robert. They Were Strong and Good, New York: The Viking Press, 1940.