One of my favorite book series for young children is Frog and Toad, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. As the title suggests, the series chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a frog named Frog and a toad named Toad. The amphibians find themselves in fairly mundane circumstances that go awry, usually resulting in Toad embarrassing himself and Frog trying to encourage him.
The stories progress mostly through dialogue. Often, Toad voices a complaint or finds himself in a frustrating situation and Frog comes along to help his friend. I appreciate this focus on dialogue because 1) the storylines are driven by character interaction rather than scenarios and 2) it makes the books more enjoyable to read aloud. This is one of those series that requires some voice acting on the part of the reader. I usually use a deeper, gruff voice for Toad and a lighter voice for Frog. My kids seem to like that approach and it’s more fun for me!
The books in the Frog and Toad series are actually collections of vignettes. Each book has a theme: Frog and Toad Together records some silly adventures the two have together, Frog and Toad All Year takes the reader through their seasonal activities, and Frog and Toad Are Friends shares stories that demonstrate the affection the two amphibians have for each other.
The vignettes are amusing and often employ some light slapstick humor to move the plot along. In one storyline, Toad decides to buy ice cream cones for Frog and himself. He starts walking back to where Frog is waiting, but the ice cream begins to melt. Soon Toad is blinded by a mudslide of chocolate ice cream and takes a tumble into a pond, leaving us feeling for his misfortune but unable to help laughing at his silly predicament. Why the wetland creature economy did not have toad-sized ice cream cones is beyond me, but it makes for a fun story.
Simple illustrations help young readers understand what is happening in the story. The pictures are fairly detailed without overwhelming the page, and they focus on showing what Frog and Toad are doing at that moment. The color palate is very simple, mostly browns and greens. The illustrations make me think of the sketches a botanist might make in his notebook out in the field. Frog and Toad have fairly flat facial expressions, as one would expect frogs and toads to have, but the illustrations still communicate their feelings effectively.
So, what value can parents find for their kids from these stories? Several lessons jump out at me:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Toad is the unfortunate bumbling straight man in most of the tales. He’s a relatable character because he represents the hesitant, self-conscious, conservative side that we all have. You know, the one that’s wary of ordering something new off the menu. Because of his nature, Toad constantly finds himself embarrassed. I think it is helpful to see a main character go through embarrassing situations to show young readers that sometimes, you just wind up with ice cream on your face, but you’ll be ok.
2. Be friends with difficult people. Frog is a faithful friend to Toad, even when Toad demonstrates a rotten attitude. I’ve met several Toads in my life, and my wife can attest to me being a Toad on numerous occasions. If Christians are to love our neighbors, we need to learn to love people who have rotten attitudes. If we are to love our families, we need to love each other past the times when one of us is being a grumpy Toad.
3. Don’t give up. A recurring theme in the Frog and Toad tales is Toad trying to complete a task or accomplish a goal and hitting a snag. One of my favorite of these stories is “The Garden.” Toad tries everything to get his flowers to grow. As silly and ineffective as his attempts are, I can’t help but smile at his tenacity. Learning to persevere in the face of adversity is a crucial part of being human.
4. Enjoy the small pleasures in life and have fun. Frog and Toad live a simple country life. They don’t fight villains or travel to exotic lands. There’s certainly merit in such tales, but most people live a fairly predictable day-to-day life. They have a home, some kind of work, maybe a family, some friends, a hobby or two. Frog and Toad live the same way. The stories just show how even in a pretty normal day-to-day life, there is adventure and enjoyment if one seeks it out. Sure, achieving a victory over an evildoer gives a huge rush of satisfaction. But sitting with a good friend by a fire, sipping a cup of tea, and listening to the wind outside is a perfectly satisfying and good way to spend one’s days.
Anything objectionable? No, not that I can see.
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Bonus: an excellent audiobook series read by the author himself. I always enjoy listening to authors read their own stories because I get to hear the pace of narration, the characters’ voices, and the tone of each exactly the way they were intended. The audiobook is accompanied by a soundtrack that enhances the stories by evoking the emotions and actions in each story.