Recently I had the exceedingly wonderful chance to see the new musical of "Frog and Toad" at the Minneapolis Children's Company. A fabulous production in and of itself, it got me to thinking about the original books on which the musical is based. Like many children I was raised on such books as the lovely, "Frog and Toad Are Friends" and I've remembered some of the stories fairly well. It's amazing to me that Arnold Lobel was able to write stories that are patient simple without ever being dull or pedantic. These stories are clear and concise and unaccountably lovely. For your average early reader I not only recommend, "Frog and Toad Are Friends" but I recommend it to the reader's parents, grandparents, school crossing guards, dentists, air traffic controllers, and anybody else who might just happen to be able to speak the English language.
In "Frog and Toad Are Friends" the book consists of roughly five short stories. The first is one of my favorites. In it, Frog has decided to wake Toad from his hibernation and introduce him to the new spring. Toad's response is, "Blah". Frog tries a number of different methods of luring his friend into the warm beautiful day, the most touching of which is his simple argument, "But, Toad, I will be lonely". Frog's eventual solution is to fast-forward Toad's calendar a little, making it instantly May. Toad is a little shocked at the date but he's happy to see the spring weather. In the second tale, Frog is sick and Toad attempts to take care of him. His different methods of coming up with a story to tell his friend inevitably lead to his own illness, however, and soon it is Frog telling Toad a story instead. The story "A Lost Button" shows Frog and Toad out looking for one of Toad's lost buttons. They find a variety of them but none are Toad's. He walks off in a huff only to find the missing item on his living room floor. Feeling guilty about yelling at his best friend he sews all the buttons onto his jacket and then gives it as a gift to Frog. The next story is an atypical tale, mostly because it doesn't end with a preachy moral (not that Lobel's stories tend to, but this one was ripe for it). In it, Frog and Toad go swimming. Frog prefers to swim au naturale but Toad has a fastidious bathing suit that he is certain everyone will laugh at. After the two swim Toad refuses to get out of the water until the crowd that has gathered at the water's edge to see his suit disperse. They don't and Toad reveals a suit that was probably in style in 1923. Even Frog laughs too. Finally, in the last story Toad mentions to Frog that he is unhappy because he never gets letters. Frog writes him one but delivers it via their friend Snail (a character that in the play version of this tale says that he, "Puts the go in escargot"). The two wait and long before the snail arrives Frog tells Toad what is in the letter so that the two are better friends for it. Three days later, Toad is happy to receive his message.
This particular collection of Frog & Toad tales doesn't contain ALL the classics. You will not find the cookie eating tale here, nor the story about Toad dreaming about Frog growing smaller and smaller. Still, this is an excellent collection. I guess I never really noticed the subtlety of Lobel's illustrations. When you think of "Frog and Toad" you think of their realistic eyes and bodies. You think of their tweed jackets and elegant striped pants. What you may not think of is their capacity for subtle expressions. The image of Toad walking in his bathing suit, head held high, away from his fellow animals by the river is worth the price of admission alone. Ditto the shot of Toad clutching his aching noggin after ramming it into a wall.
I can't really stress the simple elegance of "Frog and Toad" to you if you haven't read them before. Needless to say, you won't even mind the fact that not a character in any of these tales ever uses a contraction. It's sometimes near impossible to write really good early reader books. I think Arnold Lobel set the bar way too high when he penned these extraordinary tales. If you've never read them, you are seriously missing out.