Arnold Lobel at Home

Every win­ter I find myself miss­ing Arnold Lobel, a qui­et­ly bril­liant author-illus­tra­tor who left us far too ear­ly. I pull out my Lobel I Can Read col­lec­tion. Frog and Toad Are Friends was pub­lished in 1970, the year I grad­u­at­ed from high school, bent on my own career in children’s books. Hailed an instant clas­sic by many far-see­ing indi­vid­u­als, Frog and Toad earned a Calde­cott Hon­or. My copy, the first Harp­er Tro­phy edi­tion, is from 1979. That same year I bought a set of Frog and Toad stuffed dolls because they were so ridicu­lous. Lobel remarked in an inter­view, “Their pants kept falling down in the ear­ly mock-ups, but they’ve fixed that.”

Frog and Toad dolls

Not exact­ly. My Toad doll wears what can only be called plumber’s pants. Yet amphib­ians dressed in falling-down trousers is just the sort of thing that would amuse Lobel. He drew inspi­ra­tion from fab­u­list Edward Lear. Like Lear, Arnold Lobel pos­sessed an imag­i­na­tion unfet­tered by the laws of log­ic and prob­a­bil­i­ty. The sto­ries in the Frog and Toad quar­tet are absurd, ten­der, and decep­tive­ly sim­ple. They are also per­fect. When stu­dents ask my advice on writ­ing easy read­ers, I send them to Frog and Toad. “Aim for the pin­na­cle,” I tell them.

Owl at HomeAs much as I love Frog and Toad, I’m equal­ly fond — maybe a lit­tle more so — of Owl at Home. Lobel once described Owl as “a com­plete psy­chot­ic,” but I find his char­ac­ter charm­ing­ly eccen­tric. In each of the five sto­ries, Owl is all alone. No won­der he’s a bit dif­fer­ent. In “The Guest,” Owl feels sor­ry for poor old Win­ter out in the cold and invites Win­ter into his house. Gusts of snow and wind blow wild­ly through the room. Owl learns the hard way that not all guests have manners.

In anoth­er sto­ry, Owl is con­cerned that the upstairs of his house is lone­ly when he is down­stairs and vice ver­sa. He races up and down the stairs, try­ing to be in two places at once. Exhaust­ed, he final­ly sits on the mid­dle step. It’s utter non­sense but the child in me loves the fact Owl wor­ries that the floor he isn’t on miss­es him. Owl makes tear-water tea by think­ing of sad things like spoons dropped behind the stove, pen­cils too short to use, and songs that can’t be sung because the words have been for­got­ten. His tears fill the ket­tle for a salty but refresh­ing tea.

Owl goes for a walk in “Owl and the Moon.” When the moon ris­es, he rea­sons that if he sees the moon, then the moon sees him, and they must be friends. On his way home, Owl notices the moon fol­low­ing. He tells the moon to go back. “You real­ly must not come home with me. My house is too small. You would not fit through the door. And I have noth­ing to give you for sup­per.” My heart turns over at Owl’s dis­tress over being unable to feed the moon. In the end, Owl real­izes the moon is shin­ing in his bed­room: “What a good, round friend you are.” This book makes me want to knock on Owl’s door and ask him to lunch.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsThe Frog and Toad books were inspired by vaca­tions on Lake Bomoseen, Ver­mont, where Lobel’s chil­dren caught frogs and toads and oth­er small ani­mals. While Frog and Toad received the most praise (Calde­cott Hon­or, New­bery Hon­or, Nation­al Book Award final­ist, Children’s Book Show­case, George G. Stone Award) and are still high­ly regard­ed, I feel Owl at Home is a sleep­er. Owl reminds me of the boy Arnold, who strug­gled to make friends.

In both writ­ing and art, Lobel hit his stride with his I Can Read books. Spot illus­tra­tions and framed vignettes in only two or three col­ors gen­tly guide new read­ers through the texts. Lobel didn’t like bright col­ors in “those lit­tle books,” as he referred to them. “In my ear­ly years I used to do bright col­ors … and I real­ly wasn’t hap­py, so I grad­u­al­ly got muter and muter and became more pleased with the aes­thet­ic result.” It has been said that his begin­ning read­ers pro­mote inti­ma­cy, safe­ty, and a sense of order. To me, they feel like home.

The ani­mal char­ac­ters in those lit­tle books dwell in cozy hous­es, with com­fy fur­ni­ture, books, and flow­ers. They tell sto­ries, read — some­times to each oth­er — take walks, gar­den, and drink tea. Lobel loved cre­at­ing books for chil­dren: “There is a lit­tle world at the end of my pen­cil.” But he wasn’t always a ray of sun­shine. His child­hood was lone­ly. He kept part of his adult life hid­den. “When I am brought low by the vicis­si­tudes of life,” he once remarked, “I stum­ble to my book­shelves. I take a lit­tle dose of Zemach or Shule­vitz. I grab a shot of Goff­stein or Mar­shall … the treat­ment works. I always feel much better.”

FablesI met Arnold Lobel once. An illus­tra­tor friend and I went to hear him speak in the fall of 1980, the year he won the Calde­cott for his pic­ture book Fables. As a pre­sen­ter, he was mod­est, fun­ny, and gen­er­ous. After the event, my friend and I head­ed for the park­ing lot when we saw Lobel walk­ing alone to his rental car. We couldn’t believe that a Calde­cott win­ner was all by him­self. My friend asked him a few ques­tions about mak­ing pic­ture books, which he answered hon­est­ly. I stayed qui­et. It was enough to stand next to the man who brought Frog and Toad and Owl and oth­er char­ac­ters into my world.

In the win­ter of 1987, Arnold Lobel died at age 54, one of the first in the children’s book com­mu­ni­ty to fall vic­tim to AIDS. He once said in a speech, “To be mak­ing books for chil­dren is to be in a sort of state of grace.” I try to remem­ber those words when I’m feel­ing less than char­i­ta­ble toward the indus­try that’s been my home for near­ly 40 years. When I’m brought low by the vicis­si­tudes of life, I vis­it Frog and Toad, Owl, Grasshop­per, and Uncle Ele­phant. Lobel’s treat­ment works. I always feel wel­come.  

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4 years ago

Owl at Home is one of my absolute favorites. I re-read it every January.

David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
4 years ago

What a beau­ti­ful remem­brance of Lobel and his works. I have the com­plete set of “Frog and Toad” as well as “Owl at Home” on my book­shelf, with­in reach of my rock­ing chair where I write. I envy you hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have met Arnold Lobel in per­son once. So true he was gone all too soon.