The first book in an award-winning series for children who are starting to read on their own
Frog and Toad Are Friends: An I CAN READ Book. By Arnold Lobel. HarperCollins, 64 pp., $16.99. Ages 4—8 (Grades K—2).
By Janice Harayda
Arnold Lobel called Beatrix Potter his artistic mother. If that’s true, he deserves a Son of the Year award for Frog and Toad Are Friends.
Potter casts a long shadow over stories about animals who act and dress like humans but retain characteristics of their species. Artists often try to avoid the Curse of Peter Rabbit by denying its existence: They create animal tales so garish or absurd that no one could confuse them with Potter’s exquisite naturalism. Lobel stays in the sun by taking the opposite tack: He nods to Potter by giving his stories neo-Victorian settings and clothing, making her era his own. In his “Frog and Toad” early readers, his characters live in fairy-tale cottages with period details — a potted fern, cross-hatched windows, and heavy, carved furniture — made fresh by a palette long on soft greens. This approach makes for escapist fun along with a psychological depth rare in limited-vocabulary books.
Frog and Toad Are Friends introduces in five short parables a pair of gentle amphibian best friends with complementary temperaments — the optimistic and gregarious Frog and the more pessimistic and reticent Toad. Like a long-married couple, Frog and Toad take care of each other in ways that are kind, natural, and amusing. In their first adventure they tackle small tasks that can seem Herculean to children — getting out of bed, coping with illness, finding a lost button, waiting for mail, and appearing in a swimsuit in front of friends.
Frog and Toad have a gift for telling the truth without being mean, a trait that emerges as they splash in a river in “A Swim.” Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit, a striped one-piece Victorian affair, and doesn’t want to leave the water while Frog and other creatures are watching. Sure enough, when he steps onto land, Frog laughs. Toad asks why. “I am laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.” Far from appearing wounded by this, Toad says matter-of-factly, “Of course I do.” He marches home with his head high, satisfied that Frog has admitted the truth, in a witty sketch that puts a happy ending on the tale.
Perhaps better than any story in Frog and Toad Are Friends, “A Swim” shows Lobel’s command of character. Frog doesn’t hurt Toad’s feelings by telling him he looks “funny” in a bathing suit because that is what his friend wants to hear. His comment is a validation of Toad’s view rather than an insult. And Lobel shows his sophistication as an author and artist in his ability to make such a distinction clearly implicit without expressing it in words. Frog and Toad Are Friends lacks the full-throttle drama of Mr. McGregor racing after Peter Rabbit with a rake shouting, “Stop thief!” But it has many quieter pleasures. Good artistic sons, like biological children, don’t have to look just like their parents.
Best line/picture: The final picture of Toad, marching off proudly in his ankle-length, green-and-white striped Victorian bathing suit, in “A Swim.”
Worst line/picture: None. But this review was based on the original 1970 hardcover edition. The literary and artistic quality of spinoffs and later editions may differ.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.