Historical children’s fiction in more ways than one: Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I

Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I were great favorites of mine as a child, so I snapped up copies from a local library’s book sale cart when I saw them.

The central plot point of Ben and Me will come as no surprise to fans of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; of course mice were behind the American Revolution. Prior to the advent of the wise and clever mouse, Amos, Franklin is nothing but an absentminded inventor…but with the astute rodent, Franklin becomes the wise adviser to the Revolutionary leaders and diplomat that we know today…as long as Amos remembers not to correct Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and as long as Franklin remembers not to involve Amos in any experimentation. Especially not the ones to do with the nature of electricity and lightning1. Amos, with the assistance of Red Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s mouse) engineers such things as the Declaration of Independence and Franklin’s posting to France to petition that government for aid to the incipient United States2, then retires when Ben achieves what Amos devoutly hopes to be the wise old age of 81.

Mr. Revere and I, written fourteen years later, is a bit more subdued in literary tone and (thankfully for those who don’t like anthropomorphized animals) the horses are drawn behaving like exactly what they are, unlike the mice of Ben and Me which always reminded me, even as a nonjudgmental child, of small people dressed like rodents. It does still strike me as being an attempt at the literary style of the time; Scheherazade speaks as someone of the time would when expressing Royalist or Colonial viewpoints, albeit from a horse’s perspective. Scheherazade, or Sherry, is brought from England to the Colonies in a noisome troopship crewed by pressganged prisoners, to assist in the occupation of the Port of Boston where, in the late 1760s, there had begun to be rumblings of dissension against British rule. Sherry’s British owner, one Leftenant Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable, was unfortunately a reckless gambler, and lost her in a game of dice to a Colonial glue factory owner. She ended up in the hands of Paul Revere, and, as her stable was the converted shed attached to his house, she naturally learned more of the Colonial end of things as she could easily overhear all that went on in the family kitchen cum living room.

Rereading children’s books from long ago as an adult is always odd; do we judge it by the standard of the time it was written or the standard of today? Well, that probably depends on whether we’re doing a pure book review or recommending it for a specific group or situation. Unfortunately for Robert Lawson fans, I’m not sure if I’d suggest a library go out and buy these two if they didn’t already own them. They’re sweet books, beautifully illustrated, which would still serve as a decent introduction to historical figures in much the same way that Sid Fleischman’s books do; they’re not 100% historically accurate, as Lawson concentrated on writing an interesting story rather than meticulous attention to detail. I’d strongly urge children’s librarians to find something more recent for their first purchase. If you get a hardcover donation in good condition, go ahead and add it to the collection, but don’t go out of your way to buy them unless books like Rabbit Hill and The Wind in the Willows are hot movers in your facility.

That said, they might be worth acquiring just for Lawson’s illustrations; so many children’s books seem breathlessly awestruck when describing historical figures, and the humans do not come across in an entirely complimentary light in these two books. Lawson’s sketch of Sherry’s first owner, the illustrious nobleman Leftenant Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable will make any number of English nobility squirm uncomfortably; that said, the Colonial freedom fighters are none too handsome themselves, and the picture of Mr. Hancock’s reaction to Revere’s arrival with the news of the British troop movements will deflate pretty much any highnosed image in other children’s books. Nothing like a pet to puncture humans’ inflated sense of their own worth, as any cat owner knows, or as Amos put it, “As far as I was concerned, the War of the Revolution was nothing but committee meetings.”

1one wonders what lab mice would say if they could speak
2this latter by interjecting “French pastry…French wines…Beautiful ladies” in Ben’s ear at crucial points during General Washington’s recital of countries he’s considering asking for support.


2 thoughts on “Historical children’s fiction in more ways than one: Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I

  1. I had Ben and Me in the Little Golden Book edition as a child, and held on to it for years. It was my introduction to Franklin as more than a vague figure involved somehow as a Founding Father. I never read Mr. Revere and I. It’s good to hear about them!

  2. Mr. Revere and I was more similar than not to Ben and Me; it also provides some reasonably accurate information on Revere, and more importantly humanizes the man (as Lawson did for Franklin). Both of them are too easily left as these nebulous figures who were in some way Fathers of Our Country; I’m sure there are any number of kids who know nothing more of Revere than “he rode a horse to warn the Colonists of the British attack” and forget he was a silversmith and a family man. The book also suggests what it might have been like to live in Boston while the port was locked down by the British.

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