Frog and Toad Aren't Gay
On reading Arnold Lobel well
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I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that no children’s author left a larger impression on my very young childhood than Arnold Lobel. Some of my most cherished early memories of reading and being read to are bound up with Frog and Toad, Owl at Home, Uncle Elephant, and other creatures only Lobel’s peculiarly sweet genius could have birthed. What’s more, I never outgrew them. For the rest of my life, my family and I could make passing references to favorite stories and know instantly what we were all referring to. Phrases like “tear-water tea” and “one very last cookie” became the stuff of canonical in-jokes, like bits of favorite novels or movies. Except these were children’s picture books, deliberately pitched no higher than a very specific, very simple reading level. They were literally written for a series labeled “I Can Read.” Nevertheless, they endured. Even now, I can’t re-read Uncle Elephant without getting misty-eyed at the deceptively simple portrait of a baby elephant and the uncle who takes him in when he has nowhere else to go. It was dedicated to Lobel’s grandmother in her last days—possibly the grandmother who helped raise him after his parents divorced.
I would never have guessed that Lobel never even saw himself as a writer. He was primarily an illustrator, having talked his way into the children’s book business when he decided he had no stomach or talent for anything else. (“If I had been successful in advertising, I’d be in an advertising agency now drawing brassieres, and I’d have an ulcer. So I do feel lucky that I didn’t get into that.”) His first assignment was a 60-something page book about salmon swimming upstream. As a young father, he couldn’t be choosy. He took the job, then set about slowly growing a portfolio. He took even the smallest assignments with utmost seriousness. Finding himself bored as he worked on a book about Leeuwenhoek and the microscope, he suddenly remembered that Rembrandt was a contemporary of Leeuwenhoek. For the rest of the project, he had Rembrandt’s paintings at his elbow, trying to capture something of their essence in pictures for children.
When he finally began writing his own books, he was really reaching back to a long-buried gift he thought he had left behind in adolescence. The teacher would call him up to tell a story to a rowdy class, and against all odds, he would hold their attention for 20 minutes at a time with verses and pictures he came up with on the spot. He had locked that part of himself away, embarrassed and ashamed. But perhaps, he thought, it was time to find the key. And the rest was history.
It was also much later that I learned the dark ending to Lobel’s own story: In 1974, at the height of his career, he would come out to his family as gay. After his children were grown, he would separate from his wife, Anita—also a children’s author, also Jewish, as well as a Holocaust survivor—to live in Greenwich village. In 1987, he would die of cardiac arrest, diagnosed as a complication of his long battle with the AIDS virus. He was 54.
His daughter once suggested to the New Yorker that this might shed a new light on his most beloved characters: Frog and Toad. After all, the two creatures “are of the same sex, and they love each other,” which she judges “ahead of its time” in and of itself. Perhaps, she reflects, this was the beginning of her father’s coming out. But interestingly, neither she nor her brother is especially invested in a “queer reading.” In fact, in a new interview with them, she now sounds more definite that for Lobel, the stories really weren’t about “exploring his sexuality,” as the interviewer suggests. As a good liberal, she doesn’t begrudge various fans their various readings. She simply retains some old-fashioned notion of authorial intent, and according to what she perceives as her father’s authorial intent, “They’re just really good friends.”
But a quick search will pull up multiple predictably tiresome essays on how actually, the amphibious couple are “queer icons,” how their stories are “queer-coded,” how sneaky and “rebellious” it was of Lobel to “slip them in,” and on and on. After the fashion of such readings, not even the tiniest detail escapes post-modern retconning. Frog can’t just show up late to Toad’s house. He must be “running on queer time.” The retconning doesn’t end with Frog and Toad either. One of Lobel’s less famous creations, a horse named Lucille who tries wearing fancy lady’s clothes before deciding she’d much rather be a horse, is now “gender non-conforming”—of course.
So entrenched is the new canonical queer reading of Frog and Toad that when Apple TV released its new series based on the books last month, the Daily Beast reviewed it with the headline “Frog and Toad Are Still Gay…If You Want Them to Be.” “You can’t deny it,” director Rob Hoegee informs us. “It is part of the books, it’s part of the legacy.” People for whom the “queer subtext” of the work was very important would be happy, he predicted.
Needless to say, I approached the show with some skepticism. To my relief, it wasn’t a disaster. I was eventually convinced that the creators, under the executive producers’ eye of Lobel’s children, actually did respect the source material—for the most part.