Authors and illustrators reflect on what Arnold Lobel’s friendship-defining series means to them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Hyperion Books for Children, Candlewick, Kids Can Press, and HarperCollins Publishers.
“The very first thing is sad,” marvels Mac Barnett about the opening story in Frog and Toad Are Friends. Barnett, a prolific children’s book author whose work includes Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, is right about that. Though the book series by Arnold Lobel has filled young readers with a sense of warmth and closeness for five decades, Frog and Toad opens with disappointment and desperation. It is the first day of spring, and Frog is eager for a celebratory post-hibernation reunion. But Toad won’t get out of bed. He tells Frog to return in a month and hops back to sleep. Frog pleads, “But Toad, I will be lonely until then.” Instead of resigning himself to isolation, Frog sneaks back into Toad’s house, rips a handful of pages out of the calendar, wakes Toad back up, and tricks him into believing a month has passed. “Faced with the prospect of being alone for a month or committing an act of deception, he deceives his best friend,” Barnett explains. “And it’s a happy ending because they’re together. These amphibians, they act in complicated ways to each other, but the friendship is the only thing standing between them and despair.”
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For the uninitiated, reading such deep psychodrama into a story about a couple of anthropomorphic polliwogs might seem a bit much. But anyone who’s spent time in the world Lobel built for these two critters knows that, if anything, it’s almost an understatement. Frog and Toad, like their forebears in The Wind in the Willows, may bumble about the forest in tweed sports coats, but the accumulated weight of the tales is unexpectedly moving. Though each short story begins with the premise of an adventure, the plot twist is that, invariably, nothing really happens. We don’t go far with Frog and Toad, yet in story after story, we do gain a crystalline sense of their relationship. Frog and Toad are friends, in every sustaining and stress-inducing sense of the word.
Though Lobel died in 1987 after a long battle with AIDS, his characters’ friendship has endured. The writers and illustrators I interviewed about the 50th anniversary of Frog and Toad’s first publication don’t just respect Lobel or recall his books with fondness. They cite the stories like gospels, going into raptures about Lobel’s literary craft and talking about his heroes with the kind of interpretive complexity we normally reserve for figures from classic literature. As author and illustrator Cece Bell puts it, the books are “like a child’s introduction to prose poems, really.” Three separate writers giddily retold Lobel’s hallucinatory story “The Dream” from Frog and Toad Together to me, as if, after all these years, they still couldn’t believe Lobel had done something so audacious, so insightful, so terrifyingly perceptive in the pages of a book for little kids.
Kids’ bookshelves today are cluttered with the same types of hapless, humane (though not human) duos as Frog and Toad, from Bell’s Rabbit and Robot to Tim Egan’s Dodsworth and Duck to Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. But as Willems himself notes, Lobel’s legacy to this generation of writers and illustrators is more than a simple odd-couple conceit. “Lobel dealt head on with the complexities, misunderstandings, and emotional swings that define a true friendship,” said Willems. “I can think of few creators who cared as much about his characters’ emotional well-being as he did.” Marla Frazee, author and illustrator of Boot & Shoe as well as The Boss Baby, reads the relationship between Frog and Toad as “an emotional road map of how to love, honor, and respect the most special person in your life without giving too much of yourself away in the process.” It’s easy to get swept up in the spare world of Frog and Toad because amid the talking snakes and cookie-eating birds is something real.
“I can think of few creators who cared as much about his characters’ emotional well-being as [Lobel] did.”
— Mo Willems
Lobel never wanted to overintellectualize his characters—he lightly roasted his contemporary Maurice Sendak for that—but he was open about how the series reflected his own emotional life. “It was the first time I had turned inward,” he told Lucy Rollin in 1984. “It’s a rather schizophrenic thing. I cared about what the story would be for children, but at the same time I was aware that all of the things that happened in it were essentially very personal to me and had resonances in my own life.” Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne Lobel, echoed that sentiment. “The characters came from who he was,” she told me. “He never condescended to children.”
Acknowledging the fact that adults and kids feel with the same passion and intensity, even if they read on different levels, is central to both the composition and reception of Lobel’s books. As attuned as contemporary children’s literature is to the psychological and developmental needs of children, it’s still surprising, as a parent reading Frog and Toad, to hear your kids spoken to the way Lobel speaks to them, and to hear the way he speaks to you too. For Andrea Loney, author of Bunnybear and Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee!, the friendship between Frog and Toad is a model of “consistency, comfort, and forgiveness in a world that sometimes feels unsafe or confusing.” The stories “feel like a balm,” agrees Strange Birds writer Celia Pérez, “for kids who are just starting to encounter the scary things in the world and for adults who are still struggling with them.” The books don’t need complex allegories or meta-fictional conceits to attain the kind of narrative scope and emotional intelligence that Frog and Toad achieves.
Lobel wrote the Frog and Toad books over the course of the 1970s, a period during which he also came out to his wife—the Caldecott-winning illustrator and memoirist Anita Lobel—and children. Adrianne Lobel has elsewhere suggested that the books were a way for her father to work through his own coming out. In our current moment, when children’s literature written and illustrated by queer artists about growing up LGBTQ is comparatively plentiful, Frog and Toad feels both anachronistic and modern. Contemporary children’s books can celebrate visibility, but Lobel, along with fellow queer authors like Sendak, Louise Fitzhugh, and Tomie dePaola, didn’t have that luxury. That isn’t to say Frog and Toad are surreptitiously coded or that Lobel’s sexuality provides an analytical skeleton key for the series’ “real” meaning. What’s striking about the books is that they obscure nothing: Frog and Toad are not lovers, but their intimacy is on full display. “I think it is daring, especially during the time of its first publication,” the illustrator Tull Suwannakit told me. “The use of an animal character in place of a human allows room for imagination and wonder to take place, breaking away the taboo and restraint.”
Maybe the most miraculous thing about the Frog and Toad books is that they’ve become so influential when there are only four of them. “I thought there were 20,” said author and illustrator Jon Klassen. “You don’t remember the stories so much as just the feeling of them. You would’ve thought it was as long as The Lord of the Rings or something.” Klassen’s solo-authored 2016 picture book, We Found a Hat, the third in his whimsically macabre Hat Trilogy, feels especially Lobellian. In the preceding two books in the trilogy, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, hat thieves—a rabbit and a small fish, respectively—meet unfortunate ends after their brazen misdeeds are discovered by the much larger creatures from whom they’ve stolen. But We Found a Hat is different. Two turtles find an unreasonably large ten-gallon hat. They both love it but they can’t share it, and one turtle appears to have a sinister plan in mind. Having read the other two books, we can easily surmise that this will not end well for the schemer’s companion, but before any mischief can occur, the other turtle describes a dream to their nefarious friend. In the dream, there are two hats, one for each turtle—a dream of togetherness, a dream outside of scarcity and fear and greed. The dream convinces the turtle to leave the hat and return to sleep, and the final page is a fantastical illustration of the two turtles in their hats, flying through the cosmos.
Klassen said that he wrote We Found a Hat with Lobel in mind, often returning to the final story in the final Frog and Toad collection, “Alone.” Toad arrives at Frog’s house to find a note that says Frog is not at home because he wants to be alone. Wracked with worry about this unusual absence, Toad spends the day preparing a picnic lunch to deliver to Frog on the island in the middle of the pond where he has self-isolated. Toad tries to ride a turtle out to the island but bungles the operation and ruins the lunch, terrified the whole time that Frog has left him for good. Anxiety floats over the whole episode the way death floats over We Found a Hat. But in both books, the ending swells out of the form into something new. Toad asks Frog why he’s unhappy, and Frog responds with a great monologue:
I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.
Satisfied, Frog and Toad eat the soggy lunch. The story, and thus the series, ends: “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” Klassen sees the duality of this ending. It feels good, it feels resolved, but it really isn’t. Toad’s worry—that Frog doesn’t need him as much as he needs Frog—isn’t actually assuaged. Toad’s friendship is one of the things Frog values, but it’s not the only one. “Toad has spent all day just falling apart about Frog’s absence,” as Klassen tells it, “and Frog is out there, like, ‘I’m just thinking about everything. You’re there, for sure, but it’s just everything.’ You don’t get the feeling that Frog needs Toad like Toad needs Frog. It’s so interesting that [Lobel] left it there.” Toad is reassured, but Frog’s monologue isn’t necessarily reassuring. Friendships are as full of doldrums as they are of dreams. And somehow, somebody always ends up hatless.
“There was never a tidy bow at the end,” Kyo Maclear says of Lobel’s stories. On the surface, her animal duo, Yak and Dove, are the most obvious relatives to Frog and Toad in her work. But the spirit of the characters seems most apparent to me in her 2012 picture book, Virginia Wolf—illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault—a storybook fantasia on the childhood relationship between Vanessa Stephen and her sister Virginia, who would one day be known as Virginia Woolf. It begins, not unlike Frog and Toad are Friends, with Virginia nestled in bed, refusing to get out. Vanessa narrates, “One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish.”
Wolfishness becomes the book’s euphemism for depression, and though Vanessa is drawn as a human girl, Virginia appears as the silhouette of a wolf in a tea-length dress. Like Frog in the spring, Vanessa spends much of the book trying to figure out how to draw out her companion. Everything she tries fails until she joins her sister in bed and pleads, “There must be something that will make everything feel better.” After Vanessa stays up all night painting the walls of their bedroom, at Virginia’s request, she is terrified her sister won’t like it, won’t be buoyed by her friendship and love—but it works. The final image is one of the two human girls walking outside to play.
It is, like Lobel and Klassen’s endings, a stunning piece of visual storytelling. The impact of Virginia’s revealed face in close-up, no longer wolfish, is almost enough to bring an adult reader to tears. But, of course, part of what makes it so poignant is knowing that in real life, Vanessa would not always be able to rescue Virginia from her wolfishness, that it would return. If, as Maclear suggests, Frog and Toad asks fundamentally “existential” questions, it does so not in the lonely reveries we associate with that sort of thinking, but through friendship itself.
“That is the practice of Frog and Toad, if you want to think about it in Buddhist terms,” she told me. “It’s how to sharpen your compassion in relation to the other.” As Frog sits around on an island thinking about existence, Toad is negotiating his place in Frog’s “everything.” The wolf is at the door, the hat is where it was, and loneliness is never far away. But in the relationship between these two sports coat–wearing amphibians, there’s something pure, something so full of a radiant joy you can only see in the midst of darkness. “It’s hard to find bighearted, joyful literature that acknowledges that very real sadness, that we all, kids included—maybe kids especially—feel,” Barnett said. For five decades, those children and the adults they would become have found Arnold Lobel and thought about how fine everything is, even when it’s not.