By Sunni Brown Wilkinson
In one of his most famous poems, Richard Wilbur writes that “love calls us to the things of this world,” and no children’s literature celebrates the things of this world quite like Arnold Lobel’s charming Frog and Toad series. Beyond its beautiful illustrations and clever humor, the series revels most in a love of what keeps us alive and of language itself. In this way, the Frog and Toad series becomes, in many ways, a gateway to the world of poetry.
Stylistically, the Frog and Toad books, vignettes about two close friends sharing in life’s adventures, mirror poetry more than prose. As books for early readers, they include language that is simple but musical, and the text does not always reach the end of the page but rather breaks at certain words, like a poem. This amplifies the pleasure of reading them aloud (as they should be read), but it also means that, like poetry, each line holds its own weight and carefully wrought cadence.
For example, in the story “Spring,” Frog’s description of Spring reads like a catalogue of the joys of being alive. As Frog tries to rouse Toad from his winter hibernation, grumpy Toad complains about the bright light, to which Frog kindly replies,
‘What you see
is the clear warm light of April.
And it means
that we can begin
a whole new year together, Toad.
Think of it,’ said Frog.
‘We will skip through the meadows
and run through the woods
and swim in the river.
In the evenings we will sit
right here on this front porch
and count the stars.’
It’s difficult not to read this as a call to love the world, both for Toad and for the reader. How can we not long for these things as Frog does? And with the repetition of certain words and rhythms, Frog postures much like the poet, as a guide through the world, a voice of witness. Toad mirrors the reader: unsure, maybe even afraid or dull, being led again toward the liveliness of the world.
“Spring” reads as both moment and metaphor, too. Toad and the reader can wake up, in the physical and visceral sense, to a world humming with wonder. They can be changed by it. By the end of the story the two friends run outside “to see how the world / [is] looking in the Spring.”
Like a villanelle or sonnet, the Frog and Toad stories often employ form to build and then release tension. To open each story, there is a problem: Toad’s birthday hat does not fit; Toad has lost a button; Frog and Toad cannot get their kite to fly. Then, through a series of repeated endeavors—blinded by his too-big hat, Toad stumbles and trips over various things; everyone finds the wrong button; each effort to fly the kite fails—Lobel creates a pattern, one that celebrates not only humor (like all of us, how absurd Toad is!) but also language, since the repetition adds both emphasis and musicality. All of this builds until, suddenly, when all hope is lost, the story, like a sonnet’s volta, turns us. And something larger, maybe even existential, enters in. Toad dreams big dreams and believes his head has grown to fit the hat; Toad finds his but- ton at home and sews all of the found buttons on a special jacket for Frog who leaps for joy; the kite finally takes flight, and the robins, who have been jeering, fly away:
But they could not fly
as high as the kite.
Frog and Toad sat
and watched their kite.
It seemed to be flying
way up at the top of the sky.
Surprise and delight enter along with deep relief, even fulfillment. The repetition of “I” sounds (fly, kite, sky) lifts the voice, like the kite, wild and high, a celebration of this little victory. And the simple consonance (kite/sat and up/top) feels satisfying, fun, memorable. This is craftsmanship, and Lobel creates deep and resonant chords with only a few notes: three- and four-letter words that a young reader can sound out and understand while simultaneously following a melody. It’s not unlike the Mozart sonatas my children learned on the piano: beautiful compositions that even a young child can master. Lobel cannot achieve this without having cultivated a serious reverence for language. It is as if, underneath each line, he’s telling us: Look what even the simplest words can do. For him, as for all poets, language, even the most finite parts, if properly arranged, can reach toward the sky. The reader, child or adult, absorbs the failure and frustration as surely as they absorb the joy.
I remember reading the Frog and Toad books as a child, in the early 1980s, but my admiration for them as pieces of art came when I began reading them daily to my first son when he was a toddler. We would sit at the kitchen table eating a snack while I read each page slowly. By the time he was three, my son could repeat many of the stories by heart, pausing for dramatic effect and laughter, and wind- ing down to the final line. He felt complete delight in those recitations.
For me, the books provided revelations that surprised and comforted me as a young mother who, desperate to write and feeling lost at times, needed assurance that the simple things really did matter, and that my language and experience would be enough.
One day I read my son “The Corner.” In it, Frog recounts to Toad a time when he was young and wanted Spring to come, and his father said, “Spring is just around the corner.” Like every child, the literal-minded Frog went searching around every corner for Spring, but only found dry grass, pebbles, and old worms. At last, Frog came to the corner of his own house:
‘I saw the sun coming out,’
said Frog, ‘I saw birds
sitting and singing in a tree.
I saw my mother and father
working in their garden.
I saw flowers in the garden.’
To the surprise of my young son, I cried. I couldn’t articulate why until later, but I knew that something profound had happened. Frog searched, even despaired, but in the end he found what he longed for. It was there waiting for him. That journey could be mine too.
What a small hinge words and life and love can move on, I thought. Frog’s simple insistence of “I saw” carries the weight of wonder and deep satisfaction. How much depth there is in that single moment. I often felt afterwards that this is what I wanted to do in my own writing, this is what poets have done for centuries. It feels cousin to Seamus Heaney studying a field, Jane Kenyon watching evening come, Mary Oliver contemplating a pond of water lilies, or Joseph Stroud inhaling the scent of firewood. What they see is both everyday and revelatory, and their witness is enough.
At the end of nearly every story, Frog and Toad sit together and admire the view. Before them is a kite or a sunset or a field full of Spring. Their contemplation is satisfying, and they are changed by it. It has not come easy, but, as Lobel witnesses, it has come. Frog and Toad, like the poets they are, teach readers that the things of this world are worthy of careful attention, and that attention is love.
Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry can be found in Western Humanities Review, Sugar House Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, SWWIM, Ruminate, and other journals and anthologies. She is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field and The Ache & The Wing (winner of the 2020 Sundress Chapbook con- test). She also won the 2020 Joy Harjo Prize from Cutthroat. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in northern Utah with her husband and three sons.