Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Stories

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Every child should read Arnold Lobel’s stories of Frog and Toad. These stories are pure, unashamed delight. Once upon a time, all children’s stories were a pleasant romp, an indulgence in something lovely. Think of Mother Goose, The Wind in the Willows, The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan. As our times have progressed and become “more advanced,” the value of a story as something merely pleasant has shifted. Stories must now be useful and instructive to children as well as entertaining. Beauty is secondary, if it is present at all.

Stories for children have changed from being something pleasant, like a glass of lemonade or a soft dreamy sunset, to being something utilitarian—a vehicle designed to trick the child into receiving a moral lesson. The end in most modern pieces of children’s literature is outside the book itself. The end is not the enjoyment of the tale. Something must be accomplished beside—whether it is an increase in the child’s vocabulary, or the teaching of a moral lesson about how to share, or how not to be a bully, or how to have self-esteem. But a truly good book is sufficient unto itself and has no ulterior motives. The stories of Frog and Toad have earned their place among the good books. These are charming, dear tales about the companionship of Frog and Toad, and they are completely free of any moralistic taint.

The series is contained in four books, which were designed to be early-readers for children. The stories follow the friendship of the very kind, pragmatic Frog and his neurotic, innocently ridiculous friend Toad. Toad is charmingly unrestrained and incredibly lacking in the department of self-control, and the stories are often centered on his humorous antics. Poor Toad is a confirmed melancholic who is prone to many anxieties. Frog is Toad’s dearest friend. He is rather the opposite of Toad. He is a cheerful optimist, always happy and very kind. He proves himself to be in each story that calming presence, the peaceful, patient helper that sets Toad right and saves the day in a humble, unassuming fashion. He is indeed a faithful friend, a selfless giver.

Lobel proves his merit as an author, for he writes about friendship with cheery humility and good-humored honesty. There are very few who can touch on the subject of friendship without being overtly sentimental. Excessive sentimentality repulses discerning readers of any age—and children discard it as counterfeit rubbish. The friendship of Frog and Toad is genuine, and children glean from it truths about friendship that they can hold dear. There is a wonderful story in Days With Frog and Toad in which Frog and Toad attempt to fly a kite together. The crestfallen Toad is dismayed at each failed attempt, and his dejection is solidified as he suffers the mockery of the on-looking robins. Frog—in keeping with his sanguine temperament—is cheerfully, energetically undeterred. He encourages the deflated Toad to make a second, a third, a fourth try, despite the escalating ridicule of the birds.

The kite flew into the air. It climbed higher and higher. “We did it!” cried Toad. “Yes,” said Frog. “If a running and waving try did not work, and a running, waving, and jumping try did not work, I knew that a running, waving, jumping and shouting try just had to work.” The robins flew out of the bush. But they could not fly as high as the kite. Frog and Toad sat and watched their kite. It seemed to be flying way up at the top of the sky.

What a simple scene, and yet, how much truth it contains! Children are susceptible to fears and anxieties, dejection and humiliation, just like our friend Toad in the story of the kite. What a comfort it is to know that these fears can be dispelled by the encouragement of a good friend, whether he is an earthly companion or our divine, unseen, ever-present Friend. A good friend encourages and cheerfully bolsters the crestfallen again and again, disregarding the many little failures. Through this encouragement, children identify bravery and fortitude. They are strengthened by love and able to face repeated failure and humiliation, ultimately vanquishing these fears through perseverance and repeated effort. In all of the Frog and Toad stories, Arnold Lobel’s simple prose abounds with nuggets of truth that resonate comfortably with the experience of little children.

Lobel shows his skill not only as a writer, but also as an artist. The greatest children’s books are illuminated by beautiful illustrations. At first glance, the pictures in Frog and Toad are not beautiful or appealing. Arnold Lobel employed a very limited color palette and seemed to prefer sticking with decaying greens and musty browns, with dull and only slightly varying shades. But within the context of the stories, the pictures become very dear to the reader. The illustrations are brimming with humor and comfort and warmth. The qualities of the stories that make them so loveable are even more deeply present in the illustrations. On one page, you may find yourself laughing at how very funny the artwork is—as when Toad finally emerges from the water to the satisfaction of the crowd of eagerly waiting onlookers. Toad does look funny in a bathing suit. On others, the illustrations are so tenderly warm and cozy that they gladden the heart—as in any one of the many pictures in which Frog and Toad are comfortably drinking tea in stuffed armchairs by the fire. These pleasing and homey images further the comfortable feeling children have when reading these books. They are the perfect complement to these wonderfully simple tales.

These little books of Arnold Lobel are gems.  Like all beautiful things, they are lovely because they are pure; they are simple.  These sweet and gentle musings on friendship are free from the taint of sentimentality.  They are unadulterated by moralistic motives, and yet the plain prose is powerful enough to leave a warm and lasting impression on the reader.  If you have no children to share them with, add these stories to your library nonetheless.  Read them for yourself.  Bask in their subdued loveliness. Laugh at their absurdities. And maybe even shed an unembarrassed tear or two over the tender friendship between Frog and Toad.

Sophie Hileman

By

Sophie Hileman is a 2004 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College. She resides with her husband and four children in northeastern Pennsylvania, where she enjoys homeschooling and eating chocolate.

  • Nel

    I’ve never heard of these stories, but I’m definitely going to search for them for the godchildren.

    You’re so right about really good literature not being moralistic. It’s so easy to write propaganda for an agenda; writing timeless stories that touch on the human condition and thus appeal to generations of readers across cultures – that’s entirely different. It takes talent, imagination, and the ability to see clearly what is real, true, good and beautiful.

    It’s often struck me how strange it is that with the rise of Puritanism, we got puritanical literature for children – moralistic stories designed to instruct and even frighten them into good behavior. That trend seems to have passed for a time; it seems that perhaps between the ’30s and ’60s there were a lot of authors for children who sought simply to delight and who were able to delight the parents reading as well as the children listening to the tale. And then sometime in the ’70s it’s like some publishing Gradgrind came along and said, ‘Right, you’re enjoying yourselves far too much. Now we must have some serious indoctrination’ and books with titles like ‘I Have Two Daddies’ were spawned.

    It often seems that children’s literature is now a vehicle for hectoring and scolding children into the ‘correct’ political view or correctly ‘tolerant’ behavior. Perhaps our hedonistic culture has so deadened itself with materialism, consumerism and pleasure-seeking that it no longer knows or understands simple delight and delight in the simple, and can only create children’s literature to indoctrinate children into its own shrill politically correct world.

    I recommend Michael D. O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons for an interesting take on what makes good children’s literature, as well as an excellent book list to build your child’s library – and imagination, character and soul.

    • Jude

      I have learned to avoid any book that has won the Newberry Award in recent years. The ALA has a definite agenda that they are trying to push.
      My favorite Frog and Toad story is The Button.

  • disqus_1llR4HFS9C

    As a long ago retired children’s librarian I can attest to the fact that Frog and Toad were storytime favorites and often checked out books. They are wonderful.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    Oh, how I miss the days of reading Frog and Toad to my children! I pray for grandchildren, so that I may re-enter childhood once again… story time was for ME !

  • As the father of five, I’ve learned to appreciate the artful children’s books, the ones that I never tired of reading: the Lobel books, Oliver Pig, Uncle Elephant, Mr. Putter and Tabby, anything by Tomi dePaola, almost anything by Dr. Seuss, that masterpiece of prose, Goodnight Moon, and many more..

    Then there are the books we tried to get down to the giveaway shelf in the laundry room as soon as we could: The Berenstain Bears, board books with photos, Go, Dog. Go!, just about every Richard Scarry, and many, many more.

    And when it comes to Arnold Lobel, don’t forget Owl at Home. We all need a cup of tearwater tea now and then.

  • Ruth Rocker

    The very best children’s literature, or any literature for that matter, is that which lets the imagination soar. The stories in which you can identify with at least one of the characters and “experience” the story internally. This requires real writing, not most of the schlock that’s published these days. I remember in grade school checking out books from the school library and reading stories like “The Island of the Blue Dolphin,” “A Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” all of the “Oz” series (yes, there is more than just the yellow brick road). My grandfather got me interested in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was around 11 or 12. I voraciously consumed all of his works starting with the “Tarzan” series and then going on to Mars and Venus and Pelucidar with his heroes. From there, I bridged into “old school” science fiction with writers like Asimov and Bradbury. All of these books let my imagination loose inside my head. I didn’t just read them, I had a movie playing in my head watching the story unfold. I’m quite sure that had I not developed such a love of reading my life would have been much poorer. As an “outsider” from the “popular kids” at school I spent much of my time alone with my literary friends.

  • I should think that Aesop predates Frog and Toad by a few centuries.

  • STF

    Frog and Toad are great for reading during the cold months with children – that snug quality so well alluded to here solidifies memories of warmth in winter.

  • Seamrog

    Thank you, Mrs. Hileman, for this nice essay.

    I’ve got some homework to do on my children’s behalf.

  • WhatKidsAreReading

    My children and I delighted in these books. I teach high school and sometimes read Frog and Toad to my students when are working on reading aloud for meaning and voice. Even my students find them charming.

  • Howard

    “Once upon a time, all children’s stories were a pleasant romp, an indulgence in something lovely. … Stories for children have changed from being something pleasant, like a glass of lemonade or a soft dreamy sunset, to being something utilitarian—a vehicle designed to trick the child into receiving a moral lesson.”

    So, you think there was no moral to the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”? Or do you think that “Frog and Toad” were written before Aesop’s fables?

    You’ve pretty clearly never read Max und Moritz (1865), or anything else by Wilhelm Busch for that matter. You should, however, be aware of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, which lampoons this genre with titles like, “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” “Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death,” and “Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister was reprimanded by his Father.”

    The “Frog and Toad” stories are lovely, but the moralizing tales are surely as old as our species.

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