In the enlightened year of 2016, we tend to think of the closet as being a uniformly negative space, a shadowy den of oppression and denial from which queer people—if they want to be mentally and ethically whole—must eventually emerge. And while that view seems largely accurate, it’s at the same time true that the struggle to come out, especially in less welcoming eras, has in many cases driven artists to produce work of great insight and poignancy—work that most of us, on balance, are glad exists in the world.
In the New Yorker’s online Page-Turner blog, Colin Stokes has a lovely post this week pointing to such a work, namely the Frog and Toad series of children’s books by author and illustrator Arnold Lobel. These beloved and award-winning stories, penned by Lobel between 1970 and 1979, follow Frog and Toad, a frog and a toad who, despite experiencing a gentle friction of personalities, maintain a deep friendship. It’s the tenderness of this relationship, more than any of the pair’s specific narratives—which find quiet drama in losing a button or making a list or going for a swim—that holds the reader’s sympathies. Rereading some of the stories today, I was struck by how that hold is as strong on me now as it was when my parents read me the books as a child. But Frog and Toad’s love for each other becomes all the more affecting when you discover that Lobel was gay—a fact Stokes learns from his daughter, Adrianne. From the piece:
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.”
Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”
Like so many queer artists of his generation, Lobel’s output was cut short by the plague; but the Frog and Toad tales (which are only a portion of his oeuvre) are themselves a kind of masterpiece, offering a moving vision of same-sex intimacy that’s no less powerful for its softly coded presentation. Frog and Toad’s companionship is a portrait of gay love that’s reserved and slightly melancholy, but fiercely protective and devoted. It’s a style you often find in descriptions of gay relationships as they existed before liberation made visibility a community value, and one you can still sometimes observe in older same-sex couples of the “long-time companion” bent. That Lobel was able to transpose his experience of the closet and gay desire into charming animal characters, to gesture toward this adult dynamic in the simple vocabulary of a children’s book, only underlines his already apparent skill as a writer and illustrator.
Of course, one need not understand any of this to enjoy Frog and Toad’s various adventures. But appreciating the gay resonances absolutely adds to the beauty of many of the stories. Take “Spring,” for example. In this tale, the first in the collection Frog and Toad Are Friends, Frog endeavors to wake Toad from his hibernation so that they might greet the new season together. He wants him to come out—but Toad, still sleepy and obstinate, would rather remain hidden in the sheets of his bed. Undeterred, Frog has a plan: He will skip ahead a little in Toad’s tear-away calendar, from April to May, to a time when the appropriateness of leaving the dark is clear. The manipulated calendar in hand, “Frog ran back to Toad’s bed.” Lobel continues:
“Toad, Toad, wake up. It is May now.” “What?” said Toad. “Can it be May so soon?” “Yes,” said Frog. “Look at your calendar.” Toad looked at the calendar. The May page was on top. “Why, it is May!” said Toad as he climbed out of bed. Then he and Frog ran outside to see how the world was looking in the spring.
I’m glad we can now read Lobel’s work with this added context, and I am glad that, for however unfairly brief a time, he was able to see how the world was looking in the spring.