They Were Strong and Good

by Robert Lawson

Hardcover, 1966



Call number




Viking Press (1940)


Relates the story of the author's grandparents and parents, who, though not famous, helped build the United States.

Media reviews

There is value in having children study They Were Strong and Good. I don't recommend it be used with young children "as-is"---it should be studied by students in high school, perhaps in critical media literacy or social justice or civics courses.

User reviews

LibraryThing member AbigailAdams26
Having won a Caldecott Honor in 1939, for Munro Leaf's Wee Gillis - he also worked with Leaf on the classic picture-book, The Story of Ferdinand - Robert Lawson went on to win the Caldecott Medal itself in 1941, for this exploration of his family tree. First telling the story of his maternal
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grandmother and grandfather - the one a Scottish sea captain in New York, the other a Dutch farm girl from New Jersey - and then of his mother, raised in Minnesota; Lawson turns next to the story of his paternal grandfather and grandmother - an Englishman in Alabama, who fought Indians, the Devil and the Yankees, and a young Alabama girl who loved the preacher's voice - and then his father, who also fought in the Civil War as a young boy, before coming North to make a living. Although neither great nor famous, they were "strong and good," Lawson maintains, helping to build America and to leave a heritage that their children could be proud of.

They Were Strong and Good is a book with some admirable qualities, from the gorgeously detailed, etching-like illustrations - I have loved Lawson's work since the time I was a little girl, and would pore over my tattered copy of The Story of Ferdinand incessantly - to the concept of family history as American history. I like the idea of tracing one's ancestors' stories, and of showing pride in their accomplishments. That said, there was also some content here that made me extremely uncomfortable: the way in which the Indians in Minnesota are depicted as frightening food thieves that would descend upon Lawson's mother's house (apparently the language was changed in later editions, from "tame Indians" to just "Indians"); and the portrait of Lawson's father's idyllic hunting childhood, with his two beloved dogs and his slave, Dick. Lawson depicts racist realities from our past - the hatred of Native Americans, the enslavement of African-Americans - and he is not explicitly condemnatory in his depiction. Moreover, he presents his white characters - his grandparents and parents - as "strong and good," despite their participation in the racist culture of their day.

I don't doubt that they were strong and good, in many ways - and I have little tolerance for the viewpoint that we have nothing to be proud of in our history, because we have sometimes done wrong - and I think that deserves to be celebrated. But this celebration just felt a little tone-deaf to me, ignoring some of the elements of our history (whether as a nation or a family) that weren't strong and good, even though they appeared right there in the story. All in all, I think this title would work best for older children, perhaps those reading together with an adult, who can point out and discuss some of the problematic aspects of the text and artwork.
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LibraryThing member scote23
This is my least favorite of the Caldecott Medal winners I've read so far. The author tells the story of his grandparents and parents. I think it moves slowly and too predictably.
LibraryThing member Phill242
Caldecott, 1941
anecdotal stories about the author's parents and grandparents as he remembers them. Lawson claims these histories are representative of most Americans.
LibraryThing member raizel
Brief biographies of the author's grandparents and parents as told to him when he was young. Lacking in political correctness: Indians are a nuisance and his father had a slave, with whom he would go hunting. Descriptions are very brief, with one or two highlights of their lives.
It seemed to me
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that his pictures of his mother's mother's farm and the city it became---Paterson, New Jersey---have the same underlying composition; cool!
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LibraryThing member bp0128bd
Caldecott, 1941
anecdotal stories about the author's parents and grandparents as he remembers them. Lawson claims these histories are representative of most Americans.
LibraryThing member DianeVogan
This book is an excellent introduction to family history, plus wonderful illustrations.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Lawson tells the story of his parents and grandparents, and how they came to help shape the history of America. He accompanies the stories with detailed pen and ink drawings, for which he won the Caldecot medal. Some of these illustrations are delightful – I liked the contrast between
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“modern” city and the farm land that was just two generations pervious, and laughed at the illustration of the aftermath when a parrot nearly devoured a Panama hat. I also appreciate Lawson’s acknowledgment of oral story telling traditions, and of children listening and learning their own family histories from their elders. I certainly spent many an enjoyable evening listening to my grandparents, aunts and uncles regaling us with stories of our family’s past.

So why the low rating? I realize this is a product of its time (originally published in 1940), and that Lawson was proud of his ancestors and their accomplishments. But I am disturbed by the racism within. The depictions of “happy slaves” and “thieving Indians” just leave a really bad taste in my mouth. And now that I know this is the “revised” edition (see WIKIPEDIA entry for some of the original language), I’m even more unhappy. Perhaps it offers an opportunity for parents to have difficult discussions with their children about those episodes in America’s history, and the changing attitudes over the years. But I just don’t like it.
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LibraryThing member LaraLovesToRead
Great story that gives respect and honor to family members that came before.
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
This is intriguing. I think I would have liked a few more ancestors back, because Lawson did a good job of making the history brief but still interesting & enlightening. Too bad the cover is unappealing, at least in the edition I read. I suspect, if I'd read this as a child, I might have gotten to
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know my grandparents better.
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