Thursday, March 23, 2017
March 23, 2017: Spring in America: Children’s Stories
[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On two pioneering children’s classics that capture very different sides to the challenges that a new season can present.
In “Spring,” the opening story in Arnold Lobel’s award-winning first book about his most iconic characters, Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog arrives at Toad’s house to announce the arrival of the new season, only to find his best friend unwilling to emerge from his long winter’s nap. The story very nicely introduces the two characters’ personalities and relationship: Frog more optimistic and hopeful, pushing Toad in new directions; Toad more pessimistic and worried, reining in Frog’s occasional excesses. Yet, like all of Lobel’s deceptively simple (there’s that phrase again) Frog and Toad stories, it also illustrates a universal and important emotional lesson for young readers: the ease of resisting change or staying in our comfortable homes and routines (when we’re lucky enough to have them), and yet the importance of pushing past that to find the wonders of the ever-changing world outside our door.
In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), the award-winning first book by iconic author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, young Alan is led by a naughty dog named Fritz (for whom he’s pet-sitting) into the mysterious, enchanted, and possibly dangerous titular garden. The book features all the main elements that have distinguished Van Allsburg’s works and career ever since: stunning, (usually) black and white illustrations; an undertone of the supernatural, as experienced by seemingly ordinary young people; an interesting final twist to add another layer to the book and its effects. Yet, despite not explicitly identifying its seasonal setting, I would argue that Garden highlights subtly but significantly themes that complement yet contrast with Lobel’s arguments for experiencing spring: Alan, a cautious and proper young man content to stay at home, is led into his garden adventure against his will; and while both he and Fritz escape the titular enchanter (more or less; I won’t spoil the final twist!), there’s nothing to indicate that Alan is particularly happy to have had the experience.
It might seem like a truism to note that the world in general, and every new season in particular, is indeed both of these things: a wonder to be explored (even if we have to shake off our rest to do so), and yet a source of potential dangers (many of which we won’t see coming until we’re dragged into them). But one of the achievements of great children’s books is to present such truisms in original and compelling ways, and thus to introduce them to our earliest audiences. Moreover, the very best children’s books speak to the adults reading them at the same time that they’re speaking to those young audiences; I would argue that one of the central dualities of parenting is how much we want our children to explore and experience the world, yet also how terrified we are of all the dangers that world will throw at them, making this pair of books and images of spring very resonant for this Dad as well.
Final spring connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these or other children’s books? Other images of spring you’d highlight?