The war on LGBTQ+ people in America feels horrific right now. It seemed like we were past all this; with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage in 2015, queer community members and allies breathed a sigh of relief. A massive step in the right direction. Just a few decades earlier, it was an act of self-destruction for many to come out and be open with their sexuality. One of those people was author, Arnold Lobel. As we see LGBTQ+ people and their allies labeled as “groomers” and “pedophiles” by the right-wing, it is crucial to remember how vital queer voices have been for children. Lobel was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1933, where he faced intense bullying in his neighborhood. One of his favorite escapes from the torment was his local library, where books helped Lobel lose himself in other worlds.
After graduating from art school in 1955, he married fellow illustrator Anita Kempler. They had two children, and life seemed good. His children’s books were well-loved but not enough to support him financially. So he worked in advertising, something he disliked. But Lobel was keeping a secret. He was gay, and he would remain in the closet until 1974. By the early 1980s, Lobel had separated from Anita and relocated to Greenwich Village. Sadly, Lobel didn’t have much time to be his true self as he contracted AIDS and passed away in December 1987. Despite the trauma & pain Lobel endured in his life, writing & illustrating were his joy. He once said about his career, “I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children.” LGBTQ+ people are essential in children’s lives. Anyone trying to spin that as perverse grooming speaks volumes about themselves and their proclivities.
The Frog and Toad Treasury (HarperCollins)
You don’t want to get one Frog & Toad book, you want them all, and this treasury provides every story. Frog & Toad were born out of a time when Lobel was sick at home during his second-grade year. Making friends was near impossible during this time, and one of Lobel’s soothing strategies was to draw animals. Lobel would later speak about these characters as representing two sides of his personality, which can be seen in how much they contrast each other. But they are also life-long friends who the reader can’t imagine being apart. Years after Lobel passed, his daughter Adrianne stated that Frog & Toad were also part of her father’s journey to coming out. They represent a healthy gay couple, the sort of relationship Lobel likely yearned for while he was closeted. These are also great books about appreciating life, especially the quiet, still moments. While the words on the page may be simple, the ideas and philosophical musings are profound. There is so much to learn from these stories, even as adults.
Mouse Soup (HarperCollins)
Mouse isn’t hurting anyone; he’s sitting under a tree reading a book. But his peaceful day is suddenly usurped by Weasel, who snatches him up with plans to cook the little creature. Mouse has to think quickly and convinces Weasel he would taste terrible in his soup. Instead, Mouse says the soup needs some stories to season it. He shares four tales of mice being clever and solving problems. The stories provide a list of ingredients, and Weasel searches for them, letting Mouse escape and return home safely. In many ways, Mouse Soup is a story about bullying and using your wit to get out of the situation. Mouse never throws a punch but outthinks his enemy.
Arnold Lobel was a voracious reader and knowledgeable about Aesop’s fables. In 1980, he published a collection of his fables structured in the same style as the classics most readers have heard before. Each parable is a single page with a drawing on the accompanying page. The first fable, “The Crocodile in the Bedroom,” is about the titular Croc loving the orderliness of his floral bedroom wallpaper. He loves to lay in bed and look at the colorful straight lines. When he leaves home and sees Mrs. Crocodile’s chaotic garden bursting with bright flowers, it distresses him, and he rushes back to bed. Comforted by the wallpaper, Croc slowly slips into sickness. The moral provided by Lobel is “Without a doubt, there is such a thing as too much order.” Each fable continues this mix of playful storytelling but delivers a very relevant message that informs us of Lobel’s philosophies.