Spend the Day with Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel
Arnold Lobel

Phyl­lis: Feb­ru­ary is the month of valen­tines and lovers, and we spent a day (through his books) with some­one we love: Arnold Lobel.

He wrote easy read­er sto­ries that help chil­dren crack the code of read­ing, give them fun sto­ries with char­ac­ters who remind us of peo­ple we know and that give read­ers of all ages plen­ty to think about. In his fifty-four years, he illus­trat­ed almost a hun­dred children’s sto­ries and wrote many of them.

An edi­tor once, when asked if Arnold Lobel was more like Frog or Toad, respond­ed, after think­ing about it, that he is more like Owl.

Owl at HomeJack­ie: Some­times I read Owl at Home just to myself. What do we love about owl? Owl is always on the edge of sad­ness. He has a young child’s par­tial under­stand­ing of the world. Kids can see them­selves in Owl — and some­times they can see that they even know more than owl. Part of the joy of the sto­ry “Strange Bumps” is that kids know what the bumps are. When the two strange bumps at the foot of Owl’s bed obsess him, Owl looks under cov­ers. No bumps. He pulls the cov­ers back up and there are the bumps. He jumps up and down yelling, “Bumps. Bumps. Bumps, I will nev­er sleep tonight.” And when the bed col­laps­es, he leaves it to the bumps and goes down­stairs to sleep in a chair. He nev­er iden­ti­fies the bumps. But read­ers do.

Phyl­lis: “Tear­wa­ter Tea” is anoth­er sto­ry that always sat­is­fies. One after­noon Owl decides to brew a pot of tear­wa­ter tea. He thinks of things that are sad– chairs with bro­ken legs, songs that can­not be sung because the words are for­got­ten, books that can­not be read because some of the pages have been torn out. After a while he has accu­mu­lat­ed suf­fi­cient tears. He puts his tea ket­tle on and makes the tea. That cheers him up because, even though it tastes salty, “Tear­wa­ter tea is always very good.”

In the last sto­ry, the moon seems to fol­low Owl home despite his protes­ta­tions that he has noth­ing to give the moon for sup­per and has a very small house. When the moon dis­ap­pears behind a cloud, he says, “It is always a lit­tle sad to say good-bye to a friend.” But the moon reap­pears at his win­dow and Owl says, “Moon you have fol­lowed me home, what a good round friend you are.” Owl doesn’t feel sad at all In these brief chap­ters. So, Owl goes through sad­ness to the oth­er side. A progression.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsJack­ie: When we read the Frog and Toad sto­ries to our chil­dren we read them with joy and the plea­sure of shar­ing with our kids and didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly look deep­er into them. The Frog and Toad books are a primer on the ups and downs of friend­ship — includ­ing the foibles and quib­bles of being a good friend. In “Spring” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Frog tricks Toad into wak­ing up ear­ly from his win­ter nap because Frog is lone­ly with­out Toad. Frog is not above laugh­ing at his friend. In “A Swim” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Toad refus­es to come out of the water because, he says, “I do not want [any­one] to see me in my bathing suit.” He is wor­ried they will laugh. Even­tu­al­ly the tur­tle, lizard, snake, drag­on­flies, and a field mouse sit on the river­bank wait­ing to see if toad looks fun­ny. Even­tu­al­ly Toad has to come out of the water. He is catch­ing cold. As Toad pre­dict­ed, every­one laughs, includ­ing Frog, who says “You do look fun­ny in your bathing suit.” “’Of course I do,’ said Toad, and he picked up his clothes and went home.”

They don’t always see eye to amphib­ian eye. In “Cook­ies” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog, in pur­suit of willpow­er so as not to eat all the cook­ies Toad has baked, ends up giv­ing them to the birds. “Toad goes into the house to bake a cake.”

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t rec­og­nize them­selves in “The List,” where, when the list blows away, Toad claims he can’t run after it because “Run­ning after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do?”

In “The Sto­ry” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog is sick (“look­ing quite green”) and he asks Toad for a sto­ry. Writ­ers will rec­og­nize what Toad does when he can­not think of a sto­ry. He walks up and down, he stands on his head, he pours a glass of water over his head, but he still can­not think of a sto­ry. He bangs his head against the wall. By then Frog feels bet­ter, Toad feels worse and asks Frog for a sto­ry. Frog tells Toad the sto­ry of the Toad who could not think of a sto­ry. We can’t help but think this delight­ful tale is per­haps based on a day when Lobel could not think of a story.

Frog and Toad TogetherIn “The Dream (Frog and Toad Togeth­er),” Toad has a dream where he can­not fail. He plays the piano, he dances, he walks on the high wire while a voice pro­claims that he is “The Great­est Toad in the World.” Each time he asks Frog if he, too, could do these won­der­ful things. Each time Frog says no and shrinks a bit until Toad says, ”Frog, can you be as won­der­ful as this?” There is no answer. Frog has shrunk so small that he can­not be seen or heard. Toad shouts at the voice pro­claim­ing his great­ness to shut up and says, “Come back Frog. I will be lone­ly.” He is des­per­ate. Then Toad wakes from his dream to see Frog, who says, “I am right here, Toad.” “I am so glad you came over,” says Toad. “I always do,” said Frog.

Forty years lat­er their friend­ship is still com­fort­ing to read­ers of all ages.

Uncle ElephantJack­ie: We can’t leave this appre­ci­a­tion with­out a men­tion of Uncle Ele­phant, in which a wise Uncle Ele­phant com­forts his lone­ly ele­phant nephew when his father and moth­er do not come back from sea. On the train to Uncle Elephant’s, they eat peanuts, count hous­es and tele­phone poles, and final­ly peanut shells, which are much eas­i­er to count. Uncle Ele­phant intro­duces his nephew to the flow­ers in his gar­den, his favorite place in the world. They make crowns of flow­ers and trum­pet the dawn togeth­er. Uncle Ele­phant tells him a sto­ry about a king with many wrin­kles and a prince who was young and smart. When they meet a lion, they trum­pet so loud­ly every one of the lion’s teeth pop out. When lit­tle ele­phant gets sad, Uncle Ele­phant puts on all his clothes at once to make the lit­tle ele­phant smile. They end up laugh­ing so hard at the “pile of clothes with two ears” that they for­get to feel sad. They sing a song togeth­er, and they dance for joy when lit­tle elephant’s moth­er and father are found and return home. On the train Uncle Ele­phant counts the won­der­ful days that they had spent togeth­er, and they promise to see each oth­er often. Uncle Ele­phant is the calmest, best-lis­ten­ing uncle ever there was. He hears what the lit­tle ele­phant can’t even say about fear and sadness.

Charlie & MousePhyl­lis: He offers small com­forts in the face of great of loss. We hope you all get to spend a day with Arnold Lobel and Frog and Toad and Grasshop­per and Owl and Mouse and Uncle Ele­phant — soon — for silli­ness and com­fort and friendship.

Side­bar: We just want to men­tion sto­ries writ­ten in the same spir­it as Arnold Lobel’s sto­ries, Char­lie and Mouse, easy read­ers by Lau­rel Sny­der, which was just named win­ner of the Geisel Medal, the ALA prize for Best Easy Read­er of 2017.

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David LaRochelle
5 years ago

Oh, how I wish I would have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet Arnold Lobel in per­son! Thank you for this reminder of his won­der­ful books!

Reply to  David LaRochelle
4 years ago

David, I think he would have loved know­ing you!