Frog and Toad Were More Than Friends: A Guest Post by Kyle Lukoff
FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS (1970)
“What you see
Is the clear warm light of April.
And it means
That we can begin
A whole new year together
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.”
Who do you think gave us this lush image of love expressed and explored in nature? Love as an invitation, to participate equally and joyfully in the physical pleasures of life; running, swimming, sitting. Pleasures multiplied and amplified by experiencing it with your beloved, the one you live through a year with. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder if it was a poem by James Schuyler (“Can I tempt you to a pond walk?”). If it took place on Fire Island I might think it was Frank O’Hara, but it’s also obviously not that one, she who claimed, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy.”
This is from “Spring,” the first story about Frog and Toad, the most famous gay couple in children’s literature. In this piece I want to convince you, as I want to be convinced, that in these four books Arnold Lobel longed for, and then found, the love he created for his amphibian doppelganger.
This all might seem too neat to you, too obvious. After all, of course I want to believe that Frog and Toad are gay. I’m a gay man and a now-former children’s librarian (with a few cardigans liberated from my stylish ex-boyfriend’s closet). I’ve also started a career writing children’s books, and find them a devilishly tricky but sublime art form. It’s not implausible to think that I would reach to see my identity reflected in this world that is also my vocation.
But stay with us for awhile. Frog and Toad are Friends came out in 1970. In 1974, Arnold Lobel came out as gay to his family. By 1979 he had met Howard Weiner, 5’4” to Arnold’s six foot something (look at how tall Frog is next to his Toad, your heart will break if you think about it too much). Arnold created these characters. How did they create him, in their turn?
FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER (1972)
Howard Weiner is still eight years away. The Frog and Toad room in Howard’s End, the Provincetown bed and breakfast Howard would later own, is at least 26 years away. Since Frog and Toad Together is very concerned with domesticity (tending to a garden, baking, keeping one’s life in some kind of order), let me tell you about this room.
It is tucked under the roof. The ceiling slants over the bed, the kind of bed you’d find in a picture book. Where mothers put sick children to bed with cold compresses and bulb thermometers.
Next to the bed is a low wooden bookshelf. It’s lined with Mouse Soup, Frog and Toad All Year, a story I didn’t know about an elephant. There are editions in Hebrew and German. Most of them are signed. I recommend sitting on the floor to read them; but then, a lot of my job is sitting on a floor reading children’s books, so you might choose the armchair next to the window.
There’s a stuffed Frog sitting next to a stuffed Toad on the bookshelf, their shoulders touching. The two of them are also framed on the wall next to the hobbit-like closet, and another framed print hangs between the windows. The curtains are ruffled, and the bedspread is patterned with seashells.
You wouldn’t expect it to be here. Or, at least, I didn’t. I booked a room in a Provincetown B&B, the most affordable one I could find but more than I wanted to spend, after my Bear Week plans fell through. (For the uninitiated: Provincetown is a town at the tip of Cape Cod with a storied LGBT history and present. Bear Week is a social gathering for gentleman homosexuals of the burly and hirsute variety, as well as those who enjoy their company). I showed up dragging my suitcase behind me and Yi Zhao-Weiner, the proprietor, led me up to the room. When I saw the framed print I gasped gleefully. When I realized the full extent of the decorations I gasped again, probably theatrically but I couldn’t help myself (I am gay). When Yi told me that this was the Frog and Toad room because Howard, his recently passed partner, had been in a relationship with Arnold Lobel, the part of my brain that processes surprise and joy overloaded and then shut down.
I don’t believe in such an orderly universe that some Deity decided that my previously-reserved house would be unavailable, forcing me into this room at the nexus of everything that matters to me (gay history, children’s literature, and the men who, like me, live in those overlaps). But I knew I had to do something more with this happy happenstance. I spent the next year thinking about that bedroom, Arnold Lobel, and his relationship with Howard. I concluded, after doing zero fact-checking and less research, that Arnold came out, met Howard, the two of them had a long and happy almost-marriage, and he wrote these books specifically about his lover.
The next year I booked the room again, and interviewed Yi. I found that of course the story wasn’t that straightforward or obvious. Arnold came out as gay only after the first two books in the series came out. He met Howard after most, if not all, of the Frog and Toad books were published.
But Frog and Toad Together, from 1972, is so easy to interpolate as gay. Take the story “Dragons and Giants.” Here’s how it ends:
” ‘Frog, I am glad to have a brave friend like you,’ said Toad. He jumped into the bed and pulled the covers over his head.
‘And I am happy to know a brave person like you, Toad,’ said Frog. He jumped into the closet and shut the door.
Toad stayed in the bed, and Frog stayed in the closet. They stayed there for a long time, just feeling very brave together.”
I don’t need to explain this to you, do I? Bravery and the closet and a bed, being together and yet apart, because of and despite fear.
And then you have “The Dream,” the last story in this volume. Toad, always anxious, dreams that he is on a stage, performing all kinds of theatrical delights. The theater is empty except for Frog, who applauds his friend while getting smaller and smaller until he disappears. Toad wakes up in a panic, but “Frog was standing near Toad’s bed… ‘Frog, is that really you?’ said Toad. ‘Of course it is me,’ said Frog…. Toad looked at the sunshine through the window. ‘Frog,’ he said, ‘I am so glad that you came over.’ ‘I always do,’ said Frog.
Arnold hadn’t moved out of his family home in 1972. But he would, one day, be in a relationship with a much shorter man, an anxious boy who was never quite sure what he should do, or if he was loved. They would live together until the last days of Arnold’s life, while he was dying of AIDS-related complications and Howard was nursing him. It was the ‘80s by then, and that’s what happened.
FROG AND TOAD ALL YEAR (1976)
This one came out in 1976, two years after Arnold came out as gay. It’s also the only one dedicated to a man: James Marshall, another famous children’s book author/illustrator, also a gay man, who died in 1992, also from complications relating to AIDS (described as a “wicked angel,” by their sister and contemporary Maurice Sendak). There’s a poster, a framed Marshall drawing, on the top floor next to the bathroom, but Yi hadn’t known who he was until I brought it up. I imagine that Arnold and James were friends, or lovers, or possibly sometimes enemies (perhaps all of the above; I saw a lot of friends, lovers, and enemies during Bear Week, and assume that gay life in New York City in the ‘70s had no shortage of what we now call “drama”).
Gay children’s literature, and gay authors, have changed a lot since 1976. For the better, of course. We’ve got books that are forthright in their queerness, like “The Sissy Duckling” and “Worm Loves Worm” and “In Our Mothers’ House.” Some with the queerness backgrounded, another powerful message (“The Popularity Papers,” “A Crow of His Own”). And while many LGBTQ authors aren’t out in their public personas, for whatever reason, there are now many author bios saying “He lives with his husband in” or acknowledgments with “And thanks to my partner for”. My own debut picture book, “A Storytelling of Ravens,” refers to the author as a confirmed bachelor, an old-fashioned term for a gay man, as I was/am uncoupled and enjoy dated euphemisms.
This is better than subtext and queer coding and reading between the lines. It is better for children to have confident, public queer role models, both in and out of literature, instead of realizing twenty years later that they were deeply and subconsciously impacted by something that resonated with an as-yet-unarticulated sense of self.
I like “Tango Makes Three,” but it doesn’t make my heart burst the way the story “Down The Hill” does. Toad doesn’t want to go sledding, but Frog bundles him up warmly and frog-marches him (sorry) to the sled. Toad is afraid of sledding, of course. “Do not be afraid,” said Frog. “I will be with you on the sled.” But Frog falls off without Toad noticing, and as the sled careens down the hill Toad exclaims “I could not steer the sled without you, Frog…You are right. Winter is fun!” But after a crow spills the beans, Toad “saw that Frog was not there. ‘I AM ALL ALONE!’” screamed Toad, histrionic. I’m often single; I know that feeling.
And then there’s Christmas Eve. I never stopped to wonder about Frog’s or Toad’s families before this one. They’re adult-ish, and there are other animals around that they see to be friendly enough with. But neither of them has siblings, or parents, or extended kin networks. Not even on Christmas Eve, when Frog is late arriving to Toad’s house. Toad panics, of course, imagining that he is lost, or under attack (as I often worry about my friends). “My friend and I will never have another Christmas together!” He gathers supplies to save his friend from harm, like “a lantern in the attic. ‘Frog will see this light. I will show him the way out of the woods.’” But of course Frog was fine, just running on queer time, and together, alone, they spent “a merry Christmas Eve.” Not with a family that some people might recognize, but with their chosen family, that phrase deeply familiar to generations of us.
I love subtext, marginalia, palimpsests. While I don’t want queerness to always be relegated to the shadows, overhead lighting doesn’t do anyone any favors, either.
DAYS WITH FROG AND TOAD (1979).
Arnold wrote “Days With Frog And Toad,” the last volume in the series, in 1979. He had told his family he was gay five years earlier. He might have known Howard by this point; there’s a copy of it at Howard’s End signed, “With my deepest everything” dated September 1979. This inscription doesn’t have Howard’s name in it, but I hope it was written to him.
Yi, Howard’s partner, told me that Howard was a very anxious sort, “very Toad-like.” Always rushing over to the neighbors in a panic, never sure what to do. He and Yi met online, and when they had an opportunity to meet in person for the first time, in California, Howard’s neighbors had to convince him to take another chance on love.
In our interview, Yi broke my heart by commenting, “Towards the end of Howard’s life, he told me ‘I don’t think Arnold and I were really in love.’ ”
This passage is from “Alone,” the last story in the last book:
“Toad went to Frog’s house. He found a note on the door. The note said, ‘Dear Toad, I am not at home. I went out. I want to be alone.’ ‘Alone?’ said Toad. ‘Frog has me for a friend. Why does he want to be alone?’”
“I thought there was love,” Howard had said. “I thought he loved me, but probably he just wanted me as a kept boy. Maybe it wasn’t real love.”
“Alone,” again. “If Frog wants to be alone,” said the turtle, “why don’t you leave him alone?” “Maybe you are right,” said Toad. “Maybe Frog does not want to see me. Maybe he does not want to be my friend anymore.”
“More like a boyfriend for convenience, maybe, a little bit.”
“Frog!” cried Toad. “I am sorry for all the dumb things I do. I am sorry for all the silly things I say. Please be my friend again!”
“Why did he decorate the room with all that Frog and Toad memorabilia?” I asked.
“As a memorial,” Yi said.
“But Toad,” said Frog. “I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.”
Arnold closed the door on Frog and Toad with this: “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” That tension is as perfect a portrait of queer longing as any I’ve read.
I know a decent number of LGBT people writing books for young children, though fewer of that number are gay men who are devoted to picture books (and vanishingly few are also transgender like myself, but that might be a different essay). Bear Week in Provincetown could easily feel like a vacation from the writerly part of my identity, a time for not-particularly-family-friendly recreation. But the Frog and Toad room at Howard’s End keeps me anchored to all parts of myself. Maybe because the best art only comes from a fully-realized self. Or perhaps the universe is winking at me, saying girl, don’t forget who you came from.
I have to admit, I liked the idea of this essay better when I thought Arnold just wrote down the realities of his life with Howard. “TOAD WAS BASED ON HIS BOYFRIEND,” I told people histrionically, before I bothered to spend two minutes on Wikipedia. It’s no surprise, though, that the real story behind the story would be more complicated than that. But this deep and abiding love between two “friends,” one short, one tall, one perpetually uncertain, one steadfast, uncannily echoes the relationship he would go on to have with Howard.
Which leaves me wondering, what unconscious desires do we put into our art, and how do they manifest in our life? Can I write myself a boyfriend? Or is it the answer to a deeper question, about the ways that our longings come out of us before we’re ready to know them, and we can only recognize them after they’ve been exorcised? Whatever the truth is, Frog and Toad will forever be my standard for every kind of love.
Kyle Lukoff is the author of A Storytelling of Ravens, Explosion at the Poem Factory, the Max series, and the Stonewall Book Award winning picture book When Aidan Became a Brother. A big thank you to Kyle for allowing me to post his piece here. You can learn more about Kyle at www.kylelukoff.com.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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