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Illustration for Children: a Comparison of Two Artists

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Illustration for Children: A Comparison of Two Artists
Adriana Martinez Lando
University of North Texas

Author Note This paper was prepared for SLIS 5420 Section 001, taught by Doctor Janet Hilbun.
Illustration for Children: A Comparison of Two Artists
“Never take yourself to seriously nor your work too lightly,” was Robert Lawson’s maxim for living (Wells, 2001, p. 43)! Robert Lawson was born on October 4, 1892 in New York City. He spent his childhood in Montclair, New Jersey. According to Folmsbee, Latimer, and Mahony (1947), “Robert Lawson as a child showed no special aptitude for drawing or writing. His life was that of the usual child in a usual suburban town” (p. 331). It was not until high school that he expressed an interest in art and drawing. He attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Art for three years. (Today it is Parsons School of Design.) He studied under the tutelage of Rae Sloan Bredin and Howard Giles. In 1914, Lawson opened up a studio in Greenwich Village. He worked there three years before his participation in the war. He worked on “magazine illustrations, stage settings, and some commercial work” (Folmsbee et al., 1947, p. 331). His career as an illustrator began during this time, when his illustration for a poem about the invasion of Belgium was published in Harper's Weekly. In 1917, Lawson went to France as a member of the first US Army camouflage unit, 40th Engineers. In France, he served with other well-known artists. After the war, he returned to his work in illustration and commercial jobs. Lawson married Marie Abrams in 1922. She was also an author and an illustrator. It was on this year, that Lawson illustrated his first children’s book, The Wonderful Adventures of Little Prince Toofat (1922), contrary to belief that his first book illustration was The Wee Men of Ballywooden (1937) by Arthur Mason. He also continued to do commercial work and magazine illustration until 1930 and began etching on this year. A year later, “he was awarded The John Taylor Arms Prize, by the Society of American Etchers” (Folmsbee et al., 1947, p. 332). In 1933, despite his award, he quit etching; he continued commercial work and illustration, but devoted much of his time to illustrating books. He embarked in writing his own books in 1939, the first of which was Ben and Me (1939), which won a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. Robert Lawson was and is the only author to have been awarded both a Caldecott Award for They Were Strong and Good in 1941 and a Newbery Award for Rabbit Hill in 1945 (Folmsbee et al., 1947, p. 332).
“Of course it’s true…but it may not have happened,” is a memorable quote that Patricia Polacco shares about her Ukrainian grandmother’s response to the stories they have shared in her autobiography, Firetalking (1994). Patricia Polacco was born Patricia Ann Barber on July 11, 1944 in Lansing, Michigan. She grew up in Union City. When her parents divorced, she moved to Oakland, California. Her summers were spent in Michigan with her father (Polacco, 1994, p. 5). Her ancestry was Russian on her mother’s side and Irish on her father’s side. It seems her Russian ancestry might be where all the story telling was inspired and ignited in Patricia. In her autobiography she delights about horseback riding with her dad, and learning to raise horses; she also fished and enjoyed long walks in the woods with him and her brother. Her school year was spent near her mother in California. Her mother required her to study ballet, art, and drama. It was here probably that her joy for art began. Her mother would frame her drawings and hang them in the house (Polacco, 1994, p. 11). Polacco has a Ph. D. in Art History; however, she did not learn to read until she was fourteen. Polacco suffered from dyslexia; she was not diagnosed until junior high when one of her teachers recognized her struggle. “I had difficulty reading. Math was and still is almost impossible for me. I knew that inside I was very smart, but at school I felt stupid and slow. I had to work very hard to learn things. Now that I am grown up I realize that I process information differently than most people do. My brain scrambles images that my eyes see” (Polacco, 1994, p. 13). Polacco’s book, Thank You Mr. Falker, is a poignant book that portrays her own experience with dyslexia. While she raised her family, Patricia Polacco worked for museums, “restoring ancient icons” (Polacco, 1994, p. 14). Polacco began illustrating children’s books at the late age of 41. The name she uses on her books is her husband’s name, Polacco. Her husband Enzo is an Italian Jew from Trieste, Italy. She claims to honor the many members of his family who died during World War II by using his name (Polacco, 1994, p. 15). Polacco loves cats; she enjoys spending her time with her family and her neighbors. She takes much of her own life’s experiences with her family and neighbors to create the subjects and the themes for her books. As for her illustrations, Polacco attributes her skill in art to her dyslexia. “One of the symptoms of my disability in academics is the ability to draw very, very well” (Polacco, n.d.).
“The generation born at the time of the First World War drew with a highly educated hand and wrote with tongues of angels and great waggish humor, peppered with idiosyncrasies. It produced the first great body of literature for children” affirms Rosemary Wells about the work of illustrators and authors like Robert Lawson (Wells, 2001, p. 43). Robert Lawson’s illustrations are hilarious and exquisite, coupled with his equally hilarious writing and his heartfelt stories, Lawson’s work was prolific, a wonderful escape for children. Lawson is a line artist. He used hatch marks to create dimension and roundness. He drew during a time when color was not available and if it were, it was done so limited that it would ruin an artist’s work not add to it. Lawson drew so superbly that one would not be aware that there was no color, according to Wells. “Lawson was a Houdini at making you not even notice the color was not there. His line and pencil are so good that color would have intruded. I should add that I hope no publisher, in their zeal to make things appeal to a television generation of book-light children, ever colors in these magnificent pages” (Wells, 2001, p. 45). In relation to his illustrations, Wells says this, “No one has even tapped on the door of Robert Lawson's supremacy as a line artist… No one has approached his genius with a pencil…Lawson had these two mediums, ink line and pencil rendering, so mastered, with so little fuss and fanfare, that the drawings still sing from the page” (Wells, 2001, p. 44). In regard to his story telling Wells says, “He was a well-read man who spoke eloquently and loved our beautiful language. That man in his time shines through all his stories and pictures” (Wells, 2001, p. 45). Of his work, she marvels at his capacity to write the words on a page to appear as if Lawson was writing exclusively to her, to his readers, carrying on a conversation with one, if you would. It made his work perpetually intimate.
Polacco, in contrast to the classics of Robert Lawson, celebrates her family’s love of story telling through her books. She depicts much of her personal experiences in her writing rather than the historical fiction that Lawson was known for, albeit told through the lens of small critters and creatures. Her work is covered with color, in sharp contrast to Lawson’s magnificent black and white drawings of ink, his preferred medium. When you open a book by Patricia Polacco, you can immediately identify her work by the rounded faces of her characters, filled with visible emotions and conflict. Her pictures look like sketches, which could be easily replicated, but upon trying, one might find the complexity of it. Her greatest artistic hero is Norman Rockwell. Now her craftsmanship doesn’t match Rockwell’s, but certainly there is an element of the everyday, of the daily adventure in both of their works. In addition, her color palette may also be influenced by Rockwell’s palette. Their reds and blues and browns and greens are subtle. They don’t pop, nor are they vibrant or neon. The subtlety of their color invites a reader, draws one in. This choice of color, the olive greens or muted reds, and the soft blues on snow, remind onlookers of home. Her pictures invite nostalgia in her readers: the nostalgia to curl up under a quilt to hear Nana tell a story, or sense the nudge of a teacher pushing one to excel. Certainly, her work draws much emotion in her readers. Her writing, according to Polacco, is very effortless. “I think the language I have is simple enough so that a child can understand it. I don’t do sophisticated, extreme writing” (Elliot, 1996, p. 44). It does differ from the classical eloquence found in Robert Lawson’s books. But, one truth certainly can be said of the two artists; their work touches the heart. Their work appeals to a good in us, a strong inherent nature to seek the good, and wholesome. Both artists offer magic in their whimsical approach to writing and illustrating. And they will continue to astound readers of all ages for some time to come.


Robert Lawson:

1941 Caldecott Award for They Were Strong and Good
1945 Newbery Award for Rabbit Hill
1961 Lewis Caroll Shelf Award for Ben and Me

Patricia Polacco:

1988 Sydney Taylor Book Award for The Keeping Quilt
1989 International Reading Association Award for Rechenka’s Eggs
March 10, 1990 Santa Clara Reading Council
Author’s Hall of Fame
Commonwealth Club of California Recognition of Excellence for
1990 Babushka’s Doll
1992 Chicken Sunday (Nov. 14th 1992 declared Chicken Sunday)
1992 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
Golden Kite Award for Illustration for Chicken Sunday
1992 Boston Area Educators for Social Responsibility
Children’s Literature and Social Responsibility Award
Nov. 9th 1993 Jane Adams Peace Assoc. and Women’s Intl. League for Peace and Freedom Awards
Honor Award for Mrs. Katz and Tush for its effective contribution to peace and social justice.
Parent’s Choice Honors
1991 Some Birthday
1997 Video/Dream Keeper
1998 Thank You, Mr. Falker
1996 North Dakota Library Association Children’s Book Award for My Rotten Red Headed Older Brother
1996 Jo Osborne Award for Humor in Children’s Literature
1997 Missouri Association of School Librarians Show Me Readers Award for My Rotten Red Headed Older Brother 1997 West Virginia Children’s Book Award for Pink and Say 1998 Mid-South Independent Booksellers for Children Humpty Dumpty Award


Elliot, I. (1996). Patricia Polacco: Master Storyteller. Teaching Pre K-8, 26 (5), 42-44. Folmsbee, B., Latimer L.P., & Mahony B. E. (1947). Illustrators of Children’s Books 1744-1945. Boston, MA: The Horn Book Inc.
Polacco, P. (1994). Firetalking. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.
Polacco, P. (n.d.). “Patricia Polacco: Who Am I?” Retrieved from
Wells, R. (2001). Rabbit Redux. School Library Journal, 47(7), 43-45.


Lawson, R. (1939). Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin By His Good Mouse Amos. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
Lawson, R. (1944). Rabbit Hill. New York, NY: The Viking Press.
Polacco, P. (2001). Mr. Lincoln’s Way. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Polacco, P. (1994). Pink and Say. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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