19 February 2016

Learning From Children's Books

I'm almost certain that I never read Arnold Lobel's books when I was a child myself—or at least none of them stand among all the many books I do remember reading and rereading and adoring when I was younger. Lobel, as many probably already know, was the author and illustrator behind nearly 100 books, some of which he wrote himself, some which he illustrated for others. Among his best-known creations are probably the various Frog and Toad books—Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog and Toad Together (1972), Frog and Toad All Year (1976), and Days with Frog and Toad (1979)—but he's also the author of Prince Bertram the Bad (1963), Small Pig (1969), Owl at Home (1975), Mouse Soup (1977), Uncle Elephant (1981), and the Caldecott Medal winner Fables (1980), among scores of others.
While many of these books were certainly published in time for me to have read them as a child myself, my own experiences with Lobel's books has come later. The son of an old girlfriend loved Small Pig, and the two of us bonded over a reading of it. One of my wife Tara's favorite childhood books was Prince Bertram the Bad, a well-worn copy now, and when our son Dash was born, I tracked down a pristine first edition of it for us to share with him. And in addition to that book, Dash has grown to love other of the titles above—particular those Frog and Toad books (a gift from good friends) and Uncle Elephant, the title that first introduced him to the idea of chapter books, of stories that add up to a larger story. (Is this the point where I plug my own novel-in-stories? Oh, well, why not?)

I don't know that there's any part of the day I enjoy better than reading stories with Dash, and when I get to pick the evening's books, I often gravitate toward the Lobel titles on his shelves—stories that strike me again and again with their simplicity, their beauty, and their humanity.

Many people may think of children's books as teaching opportunities on various levels. Children need to learn to read, of course (our Frog and Toad collection is part of the "I Can Read!" series), but there's also the sense of lessons being learned, values being instilled, often some moral to the story in many books at this level. And I'm certain that there are lessons to be found in Lobel's books too—in the case of Frog and Toad, lessons about what friendship means and how friendship works, clearly, and it's been argued, persuasively, that these books also promote positive images of same-sex relationships; here's just one essay of many on this idea.

What strikes me as much as those positive messages, however, is the fact that not everything in the books stays positive—which isn't to say that it's negative, but rather that the author seems to acknowledge and appreciate the foibles and faults of characters as much as their strengths; in the story "A Swim," Toad is embarrassed by people seeing his bathing suit and laughing at him, and while a conventional story might have Frog ease him out of his embarrassment, boosting his ego, saving his pride, this one has Frog laughing along with everyone else at the end of the story, because, as he says, "you do look funny in your bathing suit." The stories recognize too the capriciousness of the world, maybe even the indifference of the universe. I adore the story "The Surprise" in which Frog and Toad each sneak over to the other's yard to rake October's messy fallen leaves—such generosity!—but then, as each of them are returning home, a wind comes up and the piles of leaves that each of them have raked blow everywhere. With this twist, each of them get home to find not a freshly raked yard but the same old mess they'd left. As Frog says, "Tomorrow I will clean up the leaves that are all over my own lawn. How surprised Toad must be!" And in perfect balance, over at his own house, Toad says, "Tomorrow I will get to work and rake all of my own leaves. How surprised Frog must be!" The story ends with the sentence, "That night Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed." O. Henry couldn't have done it better.

When I read Lobel with my son, I find myself not thinking of the lessons learned or the values instilled but of the sheer perfection—I do not use that word lightly—of the stories as stories...and of what I as a writer might take from them. I mentioned simplicity above as a hallmark of his work, but I'm often in awe of the brilliant balance in these stories: the establishment of character, the laying in of only the necessary elements, the balance of all those elements, and the rightness of the endings—which seem to me to strike that ideal mixture of being both surprising and inevitable...and, to fall back on that other word, all too human. In the story "Christmas Eve," Toad is worried that Frog is late for the holiday dinner but he doesn't know how late because his clock is broken. Stuck in that timelessness and the literally immeasurable waiting, Toad begins to imagine the worst that could've happened to his friend, and he begins to gather everything he needs to save him: a rope to pull him from the hole he must have fallen in, a lantern to guide him from wherever he's become lost, a frying pan to battle the beast who might be threatening him. Thus armed, he rushes out into the cold night—only to run into Frog coming in. "I am very sorry to be late," says Frog. "I was wrapping your present"—which is, of course....

The New York Times obituary for Lobel noted that drawing came easier for him than writing: ''Writing is very painful to me,'' he said in an interview in 1979. ''I have to force myself not to think in visual terms, because I know if I start to think of pictures, I'll cop out on the text.'' Whatever the process, the stories themselves prove that the pain paid off—at least for us readers and us writers too, who maybe can learn something of our own from all this.

What about others? Any other writers out there who can point to children's books or stories that have informed their own work? or that serve as a model for what you yourself want to do? I'm intrigued to hear—for selfish reasons, ultimately. Dash always needs more good things to read.


  1. A lovely post. A great children's story stays with you forever.

  2. Enjoyed reading this, Art. In our house one of the girls' favorites was "Dorrie The Little Witch" series by Patricia Coombs. Like "Toad And Frog" (another favorite) the stories have a simple, earnest humanity about them. Later came "The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe" series. I believe I read every book aloud--twice, or maybe it was thrice. Later, when the kids could read on their own, they moved to illustrated versions of the Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythologies (still big favorites around here). Now that the "kids" are no longer that, we still share books as a family. Though our tastes vary considerably in literature, it provides a lot of common ground for us to meet on.

  3. I love Lobel. I reember being in a bookstore with a three-year-old who, on her own, found Frog and Toad and insisted that was what she wanted. I was not impressed by the cover but I bought it and became an instant fan.

    The Frog and Toad books are a great lesson for writers. Take a look at that tiny vocabulary, and yet the characters are PERFECTLY distinct. Frog and Toad (the amphibian Laurel and Hardy) are completely distinct personalities. If Lobel could do that with a few hundred words what excuse do we grown-up writers for creating 2-dimensional characters?

    And if you haven't seen this, you are in for a treat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWIwUGAJs2U

    FABLES (modern stories of the Aesop kind) is also wonderful, but don't forget WHISKERS AND RHYMES, modern nursery rhymes, all with his great illustrations.

  4. Thanks, David and Rob. And Rob, yes, I think that's it exactly: the tiny vocabulary, as you said--intentionally so to help kids learn to read--and yet such fine characters, such a whole world presented through them. That's part of the wonder.

    And thanks for the link to the video. I didn't even know it existed! Must share with Dash, of course, who will be overjoyed.

    And David: Tara herself is rereading the Chronicles of Narnia right now. Dash will be there with her soon, I know! It really is the best bonding experience any of us could want.

  5. Adore those stories, Art. Children's lit is full of absolute genius and I am convinced, wisdom. (See Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney) if Dash likes Lobel he might also like Russell Hoban's Frances books or James Marshall's Fox books. Actually Marshall's George and Martha books are a miracle of minimalist storytelling. Dash is lucky to have parents who love to share books with him.

  6. When I was 7 years old, I discovered "An Edge of the Forest" by Agnes Smith the very year it was published. (https://books.google.com/books/about/An_edge_of_the_forest.html?id=i1IFAQAAIAAJ). I read it at least once a year after that for quite a few years, until I was an adolescent I suppose. I could never get the story and its characters out of my mind. As an adult, I found a copy and re-read it and realized for the first time what deep concepts and emotions stirred in the story, that I had perceived but not understood as a child. I am sure that's what drew me. Even as an adult, there were things in the story I could feel but not put my finger on. I believe this was Smith's only book. It's probably more suitable for older children than I was when I first read it (there are some fairly scary parts in it, where a mad dog has killed a lamb's mother and driven it into the forest, where the lamb is so weary and frightened it says it wants to die), but the themes are friendship, kinship, male-and-female relationships, life and death, fear of death as a normal part of that and as a not-useful part of that, and the fact that nearly everyone feels they don't fit in for some reason -- even those we admire as magnificent. Probably a book you'd want to read yourself before giving it to your children, but it has lit the corridors of my imagination and my heart for more than 50 years.

  7. My favorite book for children who already know how to read, maybe age 9 or above, is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. The book is not just for girls. Fitzhugh wrote a sequel which isn't as good. And an absolutely terrible movie, starring Rosie O'Donnell, was made of Harriet the Spy.

  8. I had forgotten Marshall's George and Martha. I think he acknowledged Lobel as the inspiration. They were good as well.

    Another was Mercer Mayer's Little Critter books. The first time the three year old I mentioned ever LAUGHED AT THE JOKES in a book was Mayer's JUST FOR YOU.

  9. Love all these suggestions! ...especially those for when Dash is getting older. I've never read Harriet the Spy myself, and very much want to, but I'll save it to read when he does. Will definitely look up "An Edge of the Forest" as well, since I'm mightily intrigued by the description here--not just of the book but of your reaction to it and connection to it, Anonymous.

    Thanks to all!

  10. Your post brings back lots of memories of reading with our girls. They loved the Frog and Toad books, too, and also the wonderful Little Bear books. The Amelia Bedelia books are also fun for beginning readers--very sweet in their own way, and lots of humor that appeals to children (and to me).

  11. Bonnie's right--I like the Amelia Bedelia books as much as the kiddos do.

    Good column, Art!

  12. I’m not heard of Arnold Lobel, but I recall very few children’s books that weren’t classics. Why not learn this way? Children are a demanding audience.

    Good link from Rob.

    My parents flat-out refused to get television. Funny thing, I still don’t have a TV and I rarely miss it. Of course I sometimes watch television programs on the internet, but I get to watch when and what I want, not what happens to come on.

    The best part was when my father would read to us, usually adventure stories: Jack London, James Oliver Curwood, H. Ryder Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. Something so simple, and yet that’s what I remember best.

    Dash is lucky indeed.

  13. Betty Macdonald's Mrs. Pigglewiggle books are almost as tart as the original Travers' Mary Poppins. VERY good.
    The Laura Ingalls Wilder series.
    The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling. Absolutely must reads.

  14. Do not overlook British children’s authors such as Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, R.L. Stevenson, E.R. Burroughs, and, as noted immediately above, Kipling. Enid Blyton remains another favourite.

  15. What a great bunch of suggestions! Dash is still a little young for some of these books, but interesting to see Burroughs come up twice, since I just recently got nice editions of both Tarzan and A Princess of Mars from Library of America for us to read together in a few years--books I'm particularly excited about because I've never read them myself!

    Keeping this whole list earmarked for library visits down the road. :-)


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