If I had to choose my favorite from childhood, it would have to be the Frog & Toad series. While I read more fantastic, descriptive, mind-blowing books as a kid, these stories remained the salve of my childhood. Why are Frog & Toad so compelling, so soothing? Here are a few reasons I came up with:
1. Frog and Toad are hilarious. The perfect odd couple. And yes, they’re gay.
2. Frog and Toad live in the world we wish lived in. Kid play, adult comforts.
3. Friendship rules. This is the heart of every story.
4. As early readers, kids can read these at a young age, and return to them later, which translates to kid nostalgia.
5. We desperately want to see inside their world, which is just as quirky as they are.
6. Frog and Toad are complicated yet adorable characters.
These were the books I always turned to when I felt sad or alone as a kid. I knew I would be welcomed inside their little world, their little arcadia. Since I didn’t need an adult reading them to me, I could consider myself an adult in their world, an adult the way a kid imagines it to be. I fully credit Lobel with visualizing the life we continue to long for as adults—the freedom of emotions and an independence unencumbered by adult necessities.
Toad is the neurotic in the relationship, while Frog often the more ‘adult’ of the two—telling him stories, soothings his anxieties, trying to get him out of bed. There are a few stories where Frog is the one in need, but mostly it is Toad’s antics which create the drama.
One of my favorite stories is about their inability to stop eating the delicious cookies that Toad has brought to Frog’s house. I remember reading this and feeling relieved that everyone struggled with such issues—self control anyone? Lobel provides no “adult” reason for why they shouldn’t eat just eat all the cookies. No nutritional scolding or bad timing before dinner is mentioned. In the end, they toss them out for the birds and you are left to wonder: why is it better they resist temptation then pig out on the cookies? Hint: they’re gay.
I had long suspected, even as a child, that Frog and Toad were gay—meaning they had a gay sensibility. I’m suspect this was unintentional on his part, which makes it all the more heart-breaking. George Shannon, his biographer, continually refers to Lobel’s work as being “pastoral,” reflecting his upbringing in upper state New York. I would add that Frog and Toad live in a queer arcadia, a safe space. It is entirely a child’s space; I’m not trying to complicate or sexualize his work. But there is a special, distinct relationship between Frog & Toad that makes you think, yeah, they are a couple. An odd couple, devoted and lovable.
Lobel wrote this series in the 1970s and made a conscious decision to make only three volumes, publishing only what he deemed excellent and worthy of them. It takes an artist with incredible integrity and passion not to milk the commercial success of Frog & Toad, turning them into the limp and obnoxious merchandising objects we so often see today. Like a good parent, he gave them restrictions, kept them innocent.
I believe that Lobel is an unsung hero of children’s literature; there is so much to be learned from his prolific talents. I’ve tracked down everything he ever published and am enamored with both his wit and style. From my research, I’ve gathered that he was a very private person, which is perhaps why his life is still a mystery. After raising a family with his wife (also an accomplished illustrator and writer), they separated and he came out of the closet in the early 1980s, then died at a tragically early age in 1987 from AIDS.