On Arnold Lobel’s Preoccupation With Solitude in Frog and Toad
From Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books, a Podcast Hosted by Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In today’s episode, Nichols and Newman invite guest Ellen Tarlow to discuss Arnold Lobel’s classic Frog and Toad series, beginning with Frog and Toad Are Friends from 1970. Among other subjects, the episode discusses Lobel’s preoccupation with solitude, his subtle handling of the minutiae of relationships, and how his work intersects with his personal biography (you can read more background here).
From the episode:
Ellen Tarlow: First of all, I think there were a lot of things that make [this book] special, but I think one of the reasons that people like it so much, both adults and children, is that because of the genre … these books really just hone in on what it feels to be close to another person or, you know, to another frog or amphibian. They do it in a way that they really deal so much with the messiness of intimacy, where it’s just about how you feel if someone doesn’t pay attention to you for a minute. But he does it in a humorous way, and he also managed to do it in a soothing way. You just get the sense that they are always trying to ave a lovely time enjoying each other, this frog and toad. But they are always on the edge of trying to make sure that the relationship is smooth, you know, and I guess all of us who have been involved in intimate relationships and can relate to that.
Sandra Newman: There’s a very couples therapy air to to the books I find where they’re always finding ideal solutions to tricky things to negotiate in a relationship.
Ellen Tarlow: Some of the stories are very much just about what childhood stories are about. There’s the story, “The Letter,” where Toad is despondent because he has never gotten a letter and Frog goes home and writes a letter saying, I’m so glad you’re my friend. And then he comes back and they start to wait for the mailman, which is Toad’s saddest time of day. And Frog can’t wait to tell Toad that, you know, you will get a letter because I wrote you one. H breaks the story in order just to get that over with. And then, you know, the story ends very sweetly and they get the letter. It didn’t matter that the story, quote unquote, was broken. It’s that they had that moment and they’re both happy for each other to get the letter.
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Ellen Tarlow has worked in children’s publishing for decades, and is the author of several books for young children, most recently Looking for Smile, a picture book exploring the issue of depression for kids 5-10, which Kirkus Reviews called “invaluable for this moment and beyond.” Among her other books are Pinwheel Days and Mole Catches the Sky.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.