Yesterday, The New Yorker covered classic children’s storybook’s author and illustrator, Frog and Toad. And it turns out the life and stories of Arnold may have been an early ode to the same sex love.
he books cover the adventures and mishaps of a frog and a toad, conveniently named Frog and Toad. The two characters are presented as best friends, but The New Yorker’s interview with Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne Lobel, revealed a new perspective on the amphibious relationship.
The Frog and Toad series of little children’s books “was quite ahead of its time” when the stories appeared in the seventies, claims the author’s daughter. The reason, she explains in a New Yorker article, is that the two “are of the same sex, and they love each other.” Written by Colin Stokes, an editor at the magazine,the article is titled “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love,” and as I write this, it has been second on the magazine’s website’s most popular list for several hours.
Read an excerpt here:
On a cool autumn day, a frog and a toad awake in their separate houses to find that their yards are filled with fallen leaves. The frog and toad (conveniently named Frog and Toad) see each other every day, and are particularly synchronized: rather than clean his own yard, each decides to go to the other’s house to rake up the leaves there as a kind surprise for his friend. But, unbeknown to either of them, after the raking is done and as they are walking back to their respective homes, a wind comes and undoes all of their hard work, leaving their yards as leaf-strewn as they were at the beginning. Neither has any way of knowing of the other’s helpful act, and neither knows that his own helpful act has been erased. But Frog and Toad both feel satisfied believing that they have done the other a good turn.
This story, called “The Surprise,” appears in “Frog and Toad All Year,” an illustrated book of children’s stories by Arnold Lobel that was first published in 1976. Its mirrored structure is simple yet ingenious: the gust of wind disrupts the course of what might have been a more traditional and didactic children’s tale about two friends who benefit from mutual gestures of kindness. At the end of the story, Frog and Toad’s altruism has amounted to nothing more than the feeling they each got from it. What does a child learn from this? That doing good deeds can make the doer feel good, even if those deeds go unrecognized? That those to whom we feel closest will never fully know how much we care for them? That frogs and toads shouldn’t be trusted with basic garden work? Lobel’s ending, “That night Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed,” is a satisfying conclusion that nonetheless makes the mind roam. One wonders if the friends will meet the next day and ask each other expectantly whether cleaning up their yards had been difficult, only to be flummoxed when they heard that, yes, it was. Instead, like a sitcom that starts each episode with its narrative slate wiped clean, the next story in the book finds Toad waiting anxiously for Frog to arrive at his house for Christmas Eve dinner. After Toad imagines all of the most dramatic things that could have happened to Frog on his walk over, and prepares to set out to rescue him, Frog shows up at Toad’s door with a gift in hand. He was late because he’d been wrapping it. “ ‘Oh, Frog,’ said Toad, ‘I am so glad to be spending Christmas with you.’ ”
“[Frog and Toad are] “of the same sex, and they love each other,” Lobel told The New Yorker. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.”
In 1974, four years after the first book in the series, Frog and Toad Are Friends was published, Arnold Lobel came out to his family as gay.
“I think Frog and Toad really was the beginning of him coming out,” Lobel explained.
Lobel died in 1987 at age 54, an early victim of AIDS. His children’s books still live on, perhaps giving children an early look at two same-sex characters who love each other and live together happily.
When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. However, on the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”