29 July 2009

In New Book, Frog and Toad Aren’t Friends

I’m always suspicious about breathless announcements of newly discovered manuscripts by popular authors long after their deaths. Those authors had the market clout to interest publishers in almost any work they were proud of. Their unpublished manuscripts are therefore usually discards, as with the two “new” Agatha Christie stories announced earlier this year.

This month brought news of a “new Frog and Toad book” from Arnold Lobel, continuing the easy-reader series that started with Frog and Toad Are Friends in 1970. Different titles in that series won a Newbery Honor and a Caldecott Honor.

However, the most detailed report on the find, in the Los Angeles Times, reveals that the book about to be published is quite a different animal. The paper gamely tries to convince us that we’ll see “another facet of Frog and Toad in The Frogs and Toads All Sang.” But in fact:

The text was written some 10 years before the Frog and Toad books. . . .

The ten poems in the new book don't yet have the particular characters of Frog and Toad that readers came to know later. . . .

Lobel had not yet developed the friendship between Frog and Toad. . . .
So in this book frogs and toads aren’t friends. The text isn’t an easy-reader style. And we won’t see Frog and Toad.

What, therefore, besides Lobel’s authorship makes this book a new one in the series? The LA Times credulously points to these similarities:
  • ”Frog and Toad are never seen without their jackets unless they are hibernating, in which case it's gentlemanly pajamas. In the title poem...there is a party at which
    ”The ladies wore long dresses
    And the gentlemen wore pants.”
    I believe the convention of children’s-book animals dressed up in human clothing predates Lobel by quite a bit.
  • “Part of the gentle humor in the ‘Frog and Toad’ stories is that while the friends are highly civilized, they are also children...” Again, that’s standard in children’s books featuring anthropomorphic animals.
  • “Readers can see the beginnings of Toad's melancholy in the poem ‘Bright Green Frog’. . . . The frog plays his violin ‘with skill and grace’ but wears ‘a frown upon his face’.” So we see the roots of Toad’s grumpiness, which is a contrast to Frog’s sunniness, in...a frog?
The Frogs and Toads All Sang wasn’t even a manuscript that Lobel had in his drawer, awaiting the moment when the world might appreciate it. Rather, it was a booklet he made by hand for family friend Crosby Bonsall. There’s no indication that Lobel meant it for a wider audience, or would be pleased to see the text published as is. (His sketches were completed and colored by his daughter.)

That booklet and two more like it came into the hands of a book dealer, who offered it back to Adrianne Lobel. She and HarperCollins saw the manuscript’s potential in today’s publishing world. And indeed these early, private manuscripts might provide an interesting lens for viewing Lobel’s later Frog and Toad books. But they're not really an addition to the series. 

No comments: