Straight Man and Clown in the Picture Books of Arnold Lobel

By Stanton, Joseph | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Straight Man and Clown in the Picture Books of Arnold Lobel


Stanton, Joseph, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


With the death of Arnold Lobel at the age of only 54 in 1987 America lost one of its best and most popular children's book creators. "Easy readers," books designed for beginning readers, seldom win the major children's literature awards because they are usually thought to contain too few words to establish the literary distinction necessary to win the Newbery and too many words to allow for the illustrational distinction needed to merit the Caldecott. Lobel's efforts as an artist-writer of easy readers have, however, been singled out for both Caldecott and Newbery honors, as well as for numerous other awards. The universality and whimsicality of Lobel's tales contribute to their popularity, as do the inexpensive standardized format and effective marketing employed by Harper & Row (now known as HarperCollins) for all its easy-reader paperbacks. It is safe to say that every public library in America (and a multitude of homes) are in possession of well-worn copies of "I Can Read" books by Arnold Lobel. The Frog and Toad series is by far the most popular, but his books with grasshopper, owl, mouse and elephant protagonists also have wide appeal.

In a number of the most characteristic books of Arnold Lobel the central personalities are handled i one of three ways: either there is a solitary, highly emotional (one might even say foolish) individual, a solitary reasonable individual, or there are two complementary personalities, one more foolish and the other relatively more reasonable. It would be tempting to call the foolish personality childish or child-like as opposed to the presumably more adult demeanor of the reasonable personality, but Lobel would be quick remind us that children and adults are not, at bottom, different kinds of persons. Adults and children have the same kinds of hopes, fears and foolishnesses even though the details of what they are concerned about may differ. Lobel pointed out in a 1971 interview in The Lion and the Unicom that "a child's sense of humor and an adult's sense of humor are rather the same. And if you don't have a sense of humor when you're a child, you're not going to have one when you're an adult" (84).

It might be expected that the punch line of my essay would have to be an argument for the superiority of the stories that reconcile emotional and reasonable perspectives by striking a balance or partnership between them, but I find myself unable to judge just one of the three strategies consistently preferable in either human or artistic terms. The Frog and Toad books, where reason and emotion are somewhat reconciled and held in balance, and Owl at Home, where the foolish one does without reasonable advice, are, in my estimation at least, more or less equally satisfying and successful. Likewise, Grasshopper on the Road, which will be my primary example of a book featuring a solitary reasonable protagonist, can also readily be judged a persuasive and deftly satirical piece of fiction.

It should be remembered that the most interesting characters in Lobel's work are like real people in that they have hints of both reasonableness and foolishness in their personalities. For instance, even the quite reasonably avuncular Uncle Elephant is a bit of a silly in some of his ways. Thus, I should provide advance warning that my thesis cannot be insisted upon too rigorously.

Most of my examples will be drawn from the books Lobel did for Harper and Row's "I Can Read Series." The format of that series proved to be perfect for his talents. These collections of brief stories encouraged experimentation, since no one story had to stand alone. Lobel could indulge his whimsical imagination freely in this format without fear that the eccentricity of any particular episode would endanger the project. There is, by contrast, a timidness to some of the single-story picture books he did before he hit his stride in the "I Can Read Books." His use of a giant and flocks of fairies in Giant John, for instance, seems to have been motivated by a desire to give his story the appearance of a fairy tale. …

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