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.