by Sunni Brown Wilkinson
Over the last ten years or so I’ve fallen in love with the drawings, stories, insights, and humor of an artist I took for granted as a kid and have rediscovered as an adult. I turn to him on rainy or sunny days, quiet days on the couch with a toddler, days when my boys are sick and need comfort, nights when they need good company before bed, for good dreams and the promise of happy, simple times ahead. Most of all I turn to this artist to teach my boys not only a love of stories but the ability to piece words together and read, and in reading to love the world. This artist is Arnold Lobel.
In case you don’t know him by name, Arnold Lobel is the creator of the Frog and Toad series that made its appearance in 1970 and is still in print. You might know those books by the gold and green colors of their covers, where a frog and toad are reading together or riding a tandem bicycle or flying kites or making a snow frog. Inside each book are 5-6 stories about the adventures in the friendship of these two amphibians who dress in slacks and corduroy jackets most of the year and serve each other tea in their little homes that look like English cottages. But, as a grown-up who longs for simple, funny times, it’s the themes of the stories that satisfy me most. The joys of friendship, home, the seasons, and the delicious fulfillment of being alone and completely oneself are all truths these little stories offer up. Some are wildly funny, others poetic and quiet.
A good part of the humor comes from the way Frog and Toad play off each other. Toad is grumpy, likes his sleep, doesn’t take risks, is impatient with nature and time and self-conscious in his bathing suit. It’s easy to relate to Toad, frankly. All of those make sense to me. And then there’s Frog, a kind of Taoist counterpart who remains calm and thoughtful, who savors each snowfall and spring flower, who is patient and wise, who, in a beautiful story called “Alone,” travels out to an island by himself to sit and ponder how happy he is to have the life he does and to be a frog. Toad is like most of us: awkward and worried and often very silly. If we’re lucky, we have a friend or parent or spouse like Frog who can see the bigger picture in life and who loves us despite our quirks.
One story in particular gives my toddler a fit of giggles each time. It’s called “Christmas Eve.” In it, Toad waits for Frog to come to his house so they can celebrate Christmas Eve together, but as the evening gets late and no Frog appears, Toad begins to panic that something terrible has happened to him. He gathers tools around his house to help him save Frog from the awful fate he’s sure has befallen him on the path to Toad’s house. One of these tools is a frying pan with which Toad plans to beat the big animal that might be eating Frog. “I will hit that big animal with this,” he says heroically. “All of his teeth will fall out.” At that moment, on cue every time, my son is seized by a wild and artless laughter. How fun to imagine a scary beast dazed and toothless, and how comforting to think a small creature can defend his friend with a frying pan. We know, of course, that Frog is just fine, he’s just been wrapping Toad’s gift, but watching Toad overreact deepens both the humor and our love for him.
Another story my sons know as “mom’s favorite,” but that’s only because of this revelatory moment in it that stung me one day, and I’ve never been able to read it the same since. In “The Corner” it’s a rainy day and Toad is despairing of all being ruined when Frog tells Toad that spring is coming soon and that, when he was a tadpole, his father once said spring was “just around the corner.” He then relates to Toad how, as a youth, he took this literally and left home looking for spring. At each corner of the wide world the young Frog encountered, he found something new and interesting, but never Spring. Eventually, Frog tells a listening Toad, he’d begun to feel tired and sad. The picture next to this shows Frog walking home slowly, shoulders slumped and rain pouring down on him. His disappointment is palpable. Finally, Frog says, he arrived home again. When he turned the corner of his house, he found his parents working happily in their garden, the sunlight shining over them, birds singing in the trees. The picture on this page is full of a simple warmth as young Frog and his parents wave happily to each other across the garden. “You found it!” Toad cries out happily at the end of the story. It turned out that home was the corner that led Frog to Spring.
I read this one day to my oldest son when he was very young and I was a tired mother wondering if I’d ever publish my book of poems, if the daily domestic grind would really add up to something, if I’d ever make a difference in the world. Here was an answer. In a few pages and a handful of sketches, two trousered amphibians reminded me that what I was looking for was already here, at home. I just had to wait. I remember choking up, barely able to finish the story, marveling that Arnold Lobel had touched on one of life’s greatest questions in a 12 page children’s story.
Through two gentle, affectionate, and often silly animal friends, Arnold Lobel has taught me wisdom that feels ancient and yet never gets old. Some of the best times in my life have been spent sitting on our front room couch, sunlight filtering through the windows, a toddler on my lap and a pile of Frog and Toad books beside us. The afternoon is quiet and wonderfully long and we are in no hurry to be done.
Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, BODY, Sugar House Review, Cimarron Review, Southern Indiana Review among other journals and has been nominated for two Pushcarts. Her debut poetry collection, The Marriage of the Moon and the Field, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2019. She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University, teaches at Weber State University, and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons.