The New Yorker has a short piece about Arnold Lobel, one of the greatest children’s authors and illustrators of all time. He’s most famous for the Frog and Toad books, but Mouse Tales, Mouse Soup, Owl At Home, and Fables are all great favorites at our house. We also love Pigericks, Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, and others.
So, it seems Lobel was gay, and he died of AIDS at age 54, in 1987. The article says he came out to his family in 1974.
Revelations like this used to disturb me very much. I only recently found out that Tomie dePaola is also gay, despite his obvious love for at least the stories and aesthetics that accrue to the Catholic Church. He’s the author of many books involving the Church indirectly or directly, and of many books about saints — “not a one of them has any proselytization in it,” he says. “I did it because they were good stories.”
So there it is. They are good stories, and he is careful only to show and tell the things that he still sees as true and universal, whether that means historically true, as with St. Benedict and Scholastica, or existentially true, as with St. Christopher — despite the fact that there are many aspects of the Church that he rejects. I admire this attitude immensely. Too often, we’re exhorted in the name of cleanliness to throw out the baby, and the bathwater, and the whole idea of tubs in general, just because there’s some aspect of one particular baby we don’t like one time.
Can we not do the same with Arnold Lobel, albeit from the other direction?
The New Yorker makes a medium-to-mildly obnoxious attempt to “proselytize” with the biography of Arnold Lobel, via the words of his daughter:
Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me. Lobel never publicly discussed a connection between the series and his sexuality, but he did comment on the ways in which personal material made its way into his stories. In a 1977 interview with the children’s-book journal The Lion and the Unicorn, he said:
You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.
Color me skeptical. I have no doubt that the poignance and melancholy that flicker in and out of the Frog and Toad books spring from Lobel’s personal life, whether that was associated with his homosexuality or not, whether he was in the closet or not.
But was Frog and Toad “ahead of its time” for portraying friends who love each other? Not unless you want it to be. These are books about friendship, about love, about human nature, about complementarity; and they have so much more in them that is good, true, and beautiful, never mind hilarious and touching, than almost any other children’s book I’ve ever read. (And if you’ve ever tried to write an easy reader story, you’ll recognize his almost superhuman talent for using short, simple words to tell a concise and polished story with surpassing wit and charm.)
I think we can and should take a page from Tomie dePaola: if he, as a liberal gay man, can take what seems valuable to him from the wisdom and culture of the Church, and if he can decline to waste any time publicly griping about what offends him, then we, as parents and as readers, should take what seems valuable in the work of Arnold Lobel, and decline to waste any time papering over what is good and true with extraneous information about the author — which, in the context of his stories, truly is extraneous, even meaningless.
Can we not learn to do this in general, not just with children’s books? Can we not look for the good, the true, and the beautiful and hope to find them all together, even in unexpected places? “Test all things; hold fast that which is good.” There really isn’t any other way to live.
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