The Art is in the Distance: On Arnold Lobel and Making Work in the Closet

June 9, 2016 § 5 Comments


Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

This week, nearly thirty years after his death, Arnold Lobel (author of the Frog and Toad books) was outed to the world in a New Yorker piece by Colin Stokes titled “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same Sex Love. I read the piece with interest because as a parent and a writer, I’ve been an abiding fan of Lobel’s work. In the countless hours I’ve spent propped against pillows, reading Frog and Toad books aloud to my sons, I find myself always half-immersed in story, and half-immersed in my own wonder at how flawless those stories are. As a writer who works primarily in the genre of memoir, I cannot read fiction without wondering where the author’s life intersects with his art. I am nosy that way.

Most Frog and Toad stories are composed of brief, everyday moments that, when arranged with Lobel’s precision add up to something that is at once startling and funny and layered with meaning. For instance, in one of my favorite stories, “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river. Toad requests that Frog avert his eyes as he leaves the water because he’s afraid that he looks funny in his swimsuit. But then a turtle comes along, and then a group of lizards, a snake, a mouse, and finally a pair of dragonflies. When Frog asks them to leave so that Toad can come out of the water, they insist that if Toad looks so funny, well then they are going to wait around to see.

Each time I read the story (even though by now I know the ending), I halfway expect that it will end with Toad being reassured that he looks fine, not funny, that he was silly to worry after all. But instead it ends with all of the animals—even Frog—laughing, because of course Toad does look funny in his swimsuit. How could he not?

In this and all his other stories, Lobel presents us with a world that is at once candid and charmed, a world that acknowledges that we do look funny in our swimsuits, that our friends may look when we ask them not to, and laugh even if they mean us no harm. It is a world where, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that cookies taste better than willpower. Lobel’s stories always teach lessons, and yet they never moralize.

And so, each time I’ve read Frog and Toad to my children, I’ve wondered about Arnold Lobel himself. One time I looked him up to find the picture above and to learn that he had a wife and two children and that he had died in 1987.

This did not really answer my questions.

I wanted to know where his stories came from, and how he had learned to master the art of storytelling. I wanted to know if he had studied Zen koans or Aesop’s fables, or if he was just some kind of genius. [1] But I did not want to learn anything that would ruin his stories for me, like for instance that he had been a drunk or an adulterer, or some kind of religious zealot, and so I stopped researching his life and began to simply picture him as the author with the impressive mustache.

It never occurred to me that Arnold Lobel was gay, just as it never occurred to me that Maurice Sendak was gay—a fact I learned just after his death in 2012. Now that I know, I wonder what it means that two of the greatest minds in children’s literature were men who spent much of their lives in the closet. I think that it is more than coincidence, that there is something about having to live in secret that disposes one to work well in metaphor. When we can’t tell our literal stories, we must either get creative or give up.

I think also that the strongest children’s literature is work that explores buried desires and impulses, work that builds worlds where wild things can actually be tamed, and where, if you wait on your front porch long enough, a snail will eventually deliver you the letter you’ve always wished for.

I believe that it’s important to understand Lobel’s sexual identity as a part of his legacy. As a lesbian writer, I feel that I’ve reclaimed some small part of my history any time I learn that an author I’ve admired is gay. I can also acknowledge the possible connection between Lobel’s orientation and the tender affection that Frog and Toad share. However, I worry about the suggestion that we re-read Frog and Toad as (to refer back to Colin Stokes’ title) “a celebration of same-sex love.” Ever since Stokes’ post appeared last Tuesday, others have been quick to hop on that bandwagon. People ran a story titled Are Frog and Toad Gay? and Slate published How Frog and Toad Author Arnold Lobel Explored Gay Intimacy in his Work. But here’s the thing: Arnold Lobel did not explore gay intimacy in his work. That’s kind of the point.  He was writing from the closet, compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true. Frog and Toad are neither gay nor straight. They are archetypal characters and as such their identities don’t require labels—that is a part of their appeal.

Arnold Lobel was not a memoirist. His work doesn’t invite us into his life, but still we want to find him there. We are like the animals who sit on the river bank—the turtle, and the lizards, the snake, the mouse and the dragonflies—all of us gawking at Toad in his swimsuit when he’s so clearly asked us to look away.

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[1] I did find an archived interview with Lobel as I was writing this, and it turns out that he did not study koans or fables, nor did he consider himself a genius. Lobel said, “I’m really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I’m in quicksand a bit. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s very intuitive.”

 

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The New York Times, Motherlode, Mutha, and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blogGoodnight Already.

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§ 5 Responses to The Art is in the Distance: On Arnold Lobel and Making Work in the Closet

  • Chris says:

    Ah yes. Sometimes a frog and a toad are just a frog and toad. Do they really need to be more? Wonderful essay.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for this tender rebuttal to the prying and over-reaching into a children’s author’s life.

  • herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    Iconic stories from my childhood. My brother and a friend even made a book of there own, a favourite of theirs.

  • Sarah says:

    I loved the adventures of Frog and Toad as a child, and I love reading them now to my daughter. Fascinating to hear about Lobel’s intuitive writing process. You capture the intersection of art and life so perfectly, and the fact that ultimately Lobel was “compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true.”
    Such a beautiful essay–I’m a huge fan of your work, Jennifer.

  • Kathy Berney says:

    I am a huge fan of Lobel. I agree that, in learning he was gay, writers are placing too much importance on that fact, and are projecting upon Frog and Toad a world Lobel did not intend. Frog and Toad are two friends who are a study in contrasts. I feel writers who ruminate about Frog and Toad’s sexuality are looking for a story that doesn’t exist.

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