Last month I started reading Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson for the 1940s Newbery Through the Decades challenge, and I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to read it. Difficulty or boredom weren’t the culprits; lack of time, commitment, and organization were–just when I’d reach for it, I’d realize I’d left it somewhere: in the van, in my office, downstairs in the basement, etc. It accompanied me on trips and on an unexpected (and blessedly short) tenure in the hospital when my dad had an emergency appendectomy. Despite the passage of an inordinate amount of time and my weak and faulty memory, I did finish it, and I’m glad I did.
It’s the story of a veritable menagerie of animals who live on Rabbit Hill, but the primary focus is on Little Georgie and his experiences as the animals anticipate the arrival of new Folks on the Hill. Someone new–someone human–is moving into the Big House, and the animals want to know: will the family be friends or foes? Little Georgie gets into various scrapes that affect all of the animals, from his own parents to his crotchety Uncle Analdas to Phewie the skunk to Little Willie the fieldmouse. The end of the story is very satisfying and one that any animal lover could appreciate. It’s also vocabulary-rich and fairly complex. What’s not to love? Obviously the 1945 Newbery award committee thought so, too. While my girls would definitely think this one is beneath them now, I think it might make a good read-aloud for the DLM: it’s funny, it’s exciting,it contains Lawson’s delightful illustrations, and it’s about animals. We might give it a try to see if it piques the interest of the resident five year old who can be a hard sell.
For some reason I don’t think when I picked my 1950s Newbery Through the Decades selection I realized I was picking a book by the same author. All I knew that is that The Great Wheel is about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and because I adore Richard Peck’s Fair Weather, which is about this same world’s fair, I wanted to read it. It turns out that the two Lawson books are very different, so I definitely didn’t feel bored or fatigued by going from one to the other. The Great Wheel is about a young man named Conn, who is eighteen or nineteen for most of the story, and who leaves his native Ireland to seek his fortune in the U.S. Because his Uncle Patrick happens to be Mr. George Washington Gale Ferris’ top foreman, Conn joins the workcrew building the famous wheel. This tale involves a lot of detail about the engineering and building of the Ferris wheel, and I learned a little bit about ironwork and what went into such a feat before the turn of the twentieth century. It isn’t so detailed that I couldn’t enjoy it, though. Delightful illustrations by Lawson himself add to the story. The PC-police would probably find much to censure in this story, what with all the various nationalities represented in all their various stereotypes and dialects. I found it delightful and full of snap and color. Lawson’s characters are fully developed, if they do follow stereotypes. Of course, what I love the most is the element of romance that the story is tinged with, and I was very pleasantly surprised when the romantic element comes full-circle in the end and comes to a very satisfying conclusion. This story definitely falls on the upper end of the age-range for Newberys; it would take a fairly mature reader or listener to take in all the detail. This is a book I’m glad to have read, and I’m glad that I
forced gave my eldest the opportunity to read it. A bonus for me is that one of my favorites, the aforementioned Richard Peck, wrote the introduction to this “biography of the first Ferris wheel,” as he calls it. Highly Recommended.
Robert Lawson was a well-known and prolific author and illustrator, and the winner of both the Caldecott and the Newbery Awards. Both of these honors were very much deserved.
Reviews of Lawsons’ books at Hope Is the Word:
- Adam of the Road (illustrated by Lawson)
- Ben and Me
- They Were Strong and Good (1941 Caldecott winner)