It is not going to come as news to many of you that Dr. Seuss’s birthday is this week. Dr. Seuss’s birthday has become A Thing. It began with the laudable National Education Association (NEA) effort, Read Across America, which picked Dr. Seuss’s birthday as a day to celebrate reading. It’s been running for 13 years now, and it is stronger than ever. In the Library, we are having to purchase more and more and more titles to keep up with demand. We are even running an All Seuss All Day program here at the library.
I love Dr. Seuss. One of the first books I ever owned was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, and to this day I occasionally refer to my two sons as Thing One and Thing Two. (They don’t mind.) Dr. Seuss’s ABC is still my go-to book for reinforcing learning the alphabet and the sounds of the letters in a way that is joyous and effective. And of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Grinch. I was on the Geisel Committee where we picked the best books for emerging readers, named for Dr. Seuss and with his face on the medal. I love Dr. Seuss.
But frankly…I am really really ready to celebrate Arnold Lobel’s birthday instead. I love Arnold Lobel’s books at least as much as I love Ted Geisel’s books, and they are getting far less attention. Easy-going, kind-hearted Frog and grumbly, lovable Toad are characters that reflect a remarkable range of human variety in a series of short stories. The amazing thing is that Lobel created his little jewels using the short sentences and repetition that new readers require.
You might think that the credit goes to his illustrations, which convey the characters and their world with the perfect balance of realism and humor. No, frogs and toads don’t wear clothes, but if they did, they would look just like Lobel depicts them. They don’t live in houses with doors, but we would really like it if they did. The trio of robins throwing their heads back and laughing at Frog and Toad’s attempts to fly a kite probably don’t exist in real life…but they still look just like real robins.
The other wonderful thing about Lobel’s illustrations–and we see this in his delightful Mouse books as well–is that they don’t pander to children’s tastes (or what grown-ups believe to be children’s tastes). You won’t find a speck of primary colors, and there are no exaggerated expressions. The pictures are the model of restraint, and yet children still love them.
Still, the stories themselves work perfectly without the pictures at all. I often tell them in my storytimes without the books, and let me tell you–they work. “‘What a day for a swim,’” said Frog.” From that sentence on, the children are engrossed. They usually are familiar with Frog and Toad, so they trust that they are starting off on a story that will be both truthful and funny. They know it will end with Frog and Toad’s relationship intact and their deep friendship able to overcome misunderstandings and even the need to be alone sometimes.
Frog and Toad are my go-to books for showing how to love others generously. They are my go-to books for showing kids that the hard work of learning to read is worth it because of the stories you read and the characters you meet. I wish that next year, instead of yet another Seussathon, we could devote a day to celebrating the very wonderful Arnold Lobel.