frog and toadEvery 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.

frog and toadLobel 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine (March 2015). 

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7 replies to this post
  1. Ah, the Wind in the Willows, a favorite of mine I’m not ashamed to say. Don’t recall getting around to the Frog and the Toad or are they related ? Decades cause havoc to the memory.
    In todays culture lessons taught are often aimed at political purposes, the environment, the blemishes of American history, the potentials of an activist government, how things have changed in the passing years!

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve been a teacher for 43 years. In my special education class, I taught generations of students to read: Frog and Toad were front and centre in my program. I LOVE both of these characters—and the stories about them. Their personalities and friendship are altogether authentic. Like Winnie the Pooh, the humour is both down to earth and quite sophisticated. Adults will be amused by details the kids simply take at face value. E.g., In “The Letter”, Toad is sad because no one sends him any mail. Frog runs home and writes him a letter. Frog gives the letter to a snail and says, “Please take this letter to Toad’s house”. “Sure,” [says] the snail. “Right away.” That tickles me every time! These are delightful stories for kids of all ages.

  3. I loved Frog and Toad growing up. But careful with the romanticized descriptions of children’s tales; once upon a time, many children’s tales ended with a gruesome (but educational!) ending for the main character(s), usually eaten by a wolf or boiled in a witch’s pot or some such.

  4. I read the Frog and Toad stories to my kindergartners every year. My personal favorite was, The Corner. On a cold, wintry day, Frog told Toad that spring was just around the corner, and Toad went looking for it. The children loved coaching Toad about the meaning of that expression, and the difference between space and time.

  5. I enjoyed his books, as did my children, but there is unfortunately this:

    In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne [Lobel’s daughter] told me. Lobel never publicly discussed a connection between the series and his sexuality, but he did comment on the ways in which personal material made its way into his stories. In a 1977 interview with the children’s-book journal The Lion and the Unicorn, he said:

    You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.

    Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the aids crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

  6. You make a point that resonates with me. Currently I am in a library class about children’s literature. I have been so frustrated over this idea that children’s stories have to have some social agenda or have to instruct in something. I find it ironic because of the negative attitude for the older didactic nursery rhymes. But as I’m reading these articles (!!) I keep wondering what ever happened to just reading for reading’s sake? What is wrong with settling down to a cozy book that’s main purpose is to exercise your imagination? Also, after I realized what I was in for I began censoring my own initial choices for books and ideas about children’s books..I love Wind and Willows, but have yet to read Frog and Toad. I will be. Thank you.

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