children's books, educational, In other's words

In Praise of Frog and Toad

FrogandToad1

Once again, Joshua Gibbs offers us plenty of encouragement and food for thought. In his recent article, Why We Need Frog and Toad More Than Ever, he extols the virtues of children’s books which offer opportunities for growth rather than banal celebrations for existing.

If I were not a Christian, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books would be my holy scripture. When I meet a sane adult, I assume his sanity comes largely from having heard Frog and Toad stories in his youth. Yesterday, I read my sophomore humanities students four stories from a Frog and Toad anthology. It would be impolite to assume you, noble reader, are not intimately familiar with all the Frog and Toad stories, but, in case too many years have elapsed between today and your last reading, I will briefly describe the four stories I read to my sophomores.

After offering synopses of the Frog and Toad stories entitled, “Cookies”, “The Lost Button”, “Tomorrow”, and “A Swim”, each as funny as they are profound, Mr. Gibbs points out the clear yet deftly presented lesson from each story:

Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth,” and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.

As an avid library patron as well as a teacher and homeschool parent, I can attest to Gibbs’ follow-up point. Namely, that most contemporary children’s stories fall far short of Frog and Toad when it comes to teaching relevant life lessons. It’s almost as if they fear children can’t handle real life opportunities to suffer -even on a small scale- and grow as a result:

However, children’s books have become increasingly squeamish when it comes to addressing genuine human problems, let alone the idea that vice must be painfully overcome through virtue. In the 1970s, a girl named Tina in a children’s book might be afraid to learn to ride a bike, then slowly learn with the help of her mother and friends. Today, the same book does not involve Tina learning anything, but is simply 1) a celebration of the fact Tina can already ride a bike or 2) a celebration of the fact Tina could learn to ride a bike if she so chose or 3) a celebration of the fact that while Tina cannot ride a bike, she can do 50 other interesting things. Granted, not all contemporary kids books are this banal, but one should not pick up a lately published children’s book and expect to find a character like Frog, who recognizes that he and his friend are gluttons and properly concludes, “We need will power.”

Now there’s a novel thought; that children benefit from learning self-control at an early age. Instead, and this not true of all contemporary children’s books, but I have seen this dynamic more than once:

Contemporary children’s books are big on celebrations. Were Frog and Toad stories rewritten today, Frog and Toad would feel no need to stop eating cookies but finish the bowl and celebrate their new curvaceous amphibian bodies. Toad would feel no need to clean his house but celebrate the fact that some people are simply messy and others are just neat. I also sense that Toad is— to us, at least— a lost button survivor, and that regardless of how unvirtuously he handled losing his button, he deserves a medal just for having something mildly unfortunate happen to him.

Gibbs makes an excellent point here, and all of this: the refusal to teach delayed gratification, suffering, and overcoming problems through strength of character, have lead us to the situation that many of us,old-fashioned as we are, lament today:

This current tendency (in children’s books and the world beyond) to sidestep problems and suffering and instead focus on praise and celebration has not made our lives more enjoyable, more satisfying, or more peaceable. While lately published articles suggest Americans are among the most stressed out people in the world, I am not content that “most stressed out” distinguishes handling a lot of stress well from handling a little stress very poorly. As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self.

I think I’ll end right there and invite you to click over and read the whole thing.

I know this much: I’ll never think of Frog and Toad quite the same way again.

17 thoughts on “In Praise of Frog and Toad”

  1. I’m tempted to pop into the library and grab a couple just to re-read for my own amusement and growth 🙂 .

    Of course, I do have a 10-year-old and it’s been a couple of years since I read them with her. She graduated quite early to classic chapter books, but she’s not to old yet to learn from Frog and Toad. That can be my excuse….

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Maybe my seven year old needs to read them…..actually, I know this, because like Toad swimming, he can be terribly self-conscious. Like his dad.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. 7 is a great age for Frog and Toad! Sheesh, Bike. I thought my kids spanned a wide age range. You have a 7-year-old? That’s an adorable age. Enjoy it.

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  4. I’ve (had to) read F&T since 1998 & still (have to) today. We have them all. For some reason, they bother me and I can’t figure out why so I typically have older kids read them. I agree they are quite clever & clean. I like the Letter & the Monster stories though. But for some reason it seems to have a gay theme or something I can’t put my finger on; it’s like Toad is a woman or something maybe. Probably a personal defect? I do like Owl at Home tho, which seems cut from the same cloth.

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  5. For some reason, they bother me and I can’t figure out why so I typically have older kids read them. I agree they are quite clever & clean. I like the Letter & the Monster stories though. But for some reason it seems to have a gay theme or something I can’t put my finger on; it’s like Toad is a woman or something maybe.

    Gay? Given that frog and Toad live separately and that the first book in the series is titled, “Frog and Toad Are Friends”, I suspect your suspicion is probably more attributed to a heightened sensitivity to the cultural tsunami of the past 30 years. Recall, these books were written nearly 50 years ago, and things weren’t quite as they are today.

    Toad has a different temperament, but feminine? Huh. Now I really need to go back and re-read them.

    I’ve thought often about how sad it is that in our culture, it now seems as if everything is viewed through the lens of the sexual. Heaven forbid I walk down the street arm in arm with a dear girlfriend. Someone might see us and automatically assume I’m gay or something. The days of David and Jonathan or even Lizzie Bennet and Charlotte Lucas are certainly no more!

    By the way, why have you had to read them if you don’t like them and are unsure about them?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a refreshing insight into children’s books today! As a librarian myself, I can fully relate to his frustration. Thank you for this excellent and timely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gracious hostess, yup–keep in mind my oldest is only 20, so I’m pretty sure your kids’ age range is about the same as mine. God just let me “ripen” a little longer before having kids so Mrs. Bubba wouldn’t suffer too much with my immaturity. :^)

    Regarding slurs against the manliness (amphibian-liness?) of Frog and Toad, I’m seeing them more along the lines of Fred & Barney, Laurel & Hardy, Kramden & Norton, and the like. It seems a shame that every deep friendship “needs” to be seen as sexual these days–it is as if our society has forgotten how to love without making love.

    (side note; does this have something to do with our horrendous issues with sexual assault in its various forms? )

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @ trinitygrau:

    Welcome! I love librarians!

    @ Bike:

    Yep, same range. 10-24. Roughly 13 to 14 years. I knew you were a wee bit older than me which is why I took note of it.

    I like the Fred and Barney comparison. It is an apt one.

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  9. E: why have you “had” to read them All my kids like(d) them. Btw, my wife never knew of them so I’ve only myself to blame :-).

    You made me curious so I just looked it up just now: yep, my instincts were sound Lobel was gay, AIDS, the works, etc. I do agree it’s very subtle in F&T and to be clear I’m not “unsure” of them, they are clean and good, and I felt odd about F&T even as a kid.

    https://people.com/celebrity/are-frog-and-toad-gay-arnold-lobel-came-out-after-writing-childrens-book/

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  10. @ smk:

    Interesting that his daughter just decided on her own that her father was depicting Frog and Toad as gay. Typical of propagandists to do this kind of thing.

    Even her comments about two people of the same sex loving each other are patently absurd on their face. Fiction writers have been depicting close male friends and close female friends loving each other platonically for hundreds of years. Nothing about that is “ahead of its time”.

    But touche, friend. The evidence leans heavily in your favor.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I loved Frog and Toad as a child, and I loved reading them to the kids when they were of age. They weren’t as enamored with them. Then again – YES – the kid lit of the 70s was heavily flavored with morals, even secular ones. So F&T were hardly the most lecture-y.

    As far as not allowing non-sexual touch, yes and ugh. SO over that. I grew up in a time where it was normal to hold your BFF’s hand or arm all the way through HS. Well, for girls. Hello, idiots, it’s called getting touch WITHOUT sex, and it’s a *verygoodidea* for adolescents. (I hear that boys generally achieve this by horseplay). But you know, I’m sure we’re all the better for reading into everyone all the time. :p

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You know, I’m trying to keep my politics relegated to the obscure links worth a look page, but after reading the piece SMK linked to, I’m slightly blue.

    Liberals ruin nearly everything, LOL. Even the innocence of Frog and Toad.

    Why is everything in this culture reduced to sex or profitability? Truth, beauty, goodness anyone?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hard to know for sure, since Lobel has been dead and gone for 32 years now, but I half wonder if the big thing Mr. Koseki objects to (and I noticed as a kid) is how sedate Frog and Toad are. They don’t wrestle, play football, etc.. Along those lines, Lobel remembered being bullied and not being happy as a child except with….sedate pleasures. Notice as well that Mouse Soup, another Lobel book, shows Mouse outwitting his tormentor. That fits Lobel’s upbringing perfectly.

    And so it’s not necessarily that Frog and Toad are subtly homosexual, but rather that the same factor–Lobel’s bookish, quiet personality–that led to both. My take, anyways. And there is something very different about Mrs. Lobel sticking with him until he died. I don’t get that at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This discussion reminds me a bit of the Bert & Ernie brouhaha that continues to pop up from time to time. The idea occurs only to adults. Little kids just see two best friends one of whom plays tricks on the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. @ Maeve:

    The idea occurs only to adults. Little kids just see two best friends one of whom plays tricks on the other.

    Sadly, 10 years from now, it will occur to kids as well. I think that’s the goal, which I know sounds terribly cynical (the thought breaks my heart a little), but I do believe that’s the ultimate goal.

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