"Frog and Toad Go Through These Dramas Every Day": Children's Lit and Context

My last blog post was about re-reading—in part, revisiting books that underwhelmed me in college and high school, to see if perhaps I just wasn’t ready for them the first time around. (Sometimes I was right the first time, but not often, and almost never completely.) This week, a great feature ran in The New Yorker that reminded me not to stop with ninth-grade English when I walk back through my literary past—Colin Stokes’s “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love.”

I have only anecdotal evidence to back this up, but my impression has always been that Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad have a special place in the heart of every former neurotic child—that is, perhaps, in the heart of every current neurotic adult. There are plenty of kids’ books that deal with anxiety, misunderstanding, worry, insecurity—of course there are. But long before I could have articulated this feeling in even close to these words, I loved Frog and Toad in particular for threading a needle of being sweet and hopeful without being patronizing or artificially optimistic. (Young children are aware of when they’re being patronized—how else to explain that the post popular children’s content is always that which doesn’t talk down to them.) These books tacitly teach you that there are always going to be fresh anxieties, that you will never reach a plateau where you’re always prepared and nothing is ever scary—but it’s still okay, and the world is still beautiful, because you’re always going to be able to get through it.

As Lobel’s daughter Adrianne says in the New Yorker story: “I’ve watched children grow up, and that whole drama that’s kind of the precursor to the hell of romance later in life—who is best friends with whom and who likes who when, and this person doesn’t like me now—it’s very painful, and I think that children really like to hear that this is not abnormal, that Frog and Toad go through these dramas every day.”

I don’t have much to say here beyond recommending the article, which is poignant and thoughtful and sweet. But its main revelation—that Lobel was a gay man who likely used Frog and Toad as a way to process his coming out—is personally touching as well as broadly interesting. On the surface, our favorite books from early childhood defy misunderstanding; it’s part of their basic function to do so. But children’s literature is also ripest for the revelation of new dimensions, because our worlds were so simple on our first reading.

I’ve more or less given up on reaching anything more than a case-by-case opinion on whether biographical context matters in evaluating a book. That’s probably a topic for another post. But in this case, I’m very glad to know more about Lobel, and I’ve been holding Stokes’s article in the back of my mind all week—and revisiting Frog and Toad, with neurotic affection.