Sunday, March 30, 2008

My Hero

I have often said, quietly to myself or perhaps to a trusted friend, that if I could come back in a next life as another person, it would be Arnold Lobel, the masterful author and illustrator of the Frog and Toad beginning-reader stories (as well as Owl at Home, Mouse Soup, Mouse Tales and a host of other books). Well, I don't really want his life (though he had lovely children and a successful career, he died much too young, at age 54); I would like his ability to put into words such extraordinary characterizations as Frog, Toad and Owl.

What brings this all to mind now is my trip yesterday to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst MA for the opening of "Seeking a State of Grace: The Art of Arnold Lobel." The exhibit is delightfully constructed, with numerous sketches, preliminary cover designs for many of Lobel's books, and commentaries from editors and colleagues. We are reminded that despite his too-brief career, he "gave us some of the most loved, admired and beautifully crafted books ever published," and that he had "the extraordinary ability to examine the human condition with warmth, compassion, and a generous dose of humor." Said Maurice Sendak of Arnold Lobel: "There was a clarity that could be enjoyed on the simplest level, but if you had a more sophisticated sensibility, you saw how dense his work really was."

The highlight of the evening was a panel discussion by Michael Patrick Hearn (the exhibit's guest curator) and Arnold's two grown children Adrianne and Adam, who had opened their father's storehouse of manuscripts and drawings for Hearn's perusal. The audience gained a peek into Lobel's creative habits (drawing in the morning, working with words in the afternoon); we learned how parents Arnold and Anita both loved the theater, movies and music, and that a weekly treat for the family was watching the Carol Burnett show together on Wednesday nights. We also learned that Adrianne credits her explanation of the differences between frogs and toads, to her father one summer in Vermont, with Lobel's subsequent outpouring of stories about the two different-as-could-be friends.

The impact and popularity of Lobel's work was vastly underestimated at the time it was first published. A critic at the New York Times conceded it had minor charm but questioned whether it was literature. Readers have certified, over the years, that Lobel's books are endearing and enduring, magnificent in their appeal. Children love the sound of words, and curator Hearn reminds us that Lobel chose words that were functional and simple but not bland. The quiet elegance with which he strung them together was inimitable.

I hope your will make the opportunity to read Arnold Lobel's books again and again, and to visit the exhibit! It runs through June 15, 2008.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

School Libraries in Washington State

I received the news today that three young mothers in Washington State succeeded in their efforts to capture serious money from the state legislature to fund school libraries. My heart burst with pride, as one of those moms is my niece Susan McBurney. I had been following the effort to secure library funding for some months; Susan and I had exchanged numerous emails as she sought supportive advocacy materials and kept me in the loop of her thoughtful campaign. Four million dollars constitutes the first-ever state-level support for school libraries in Washington! Susan and her collaborators have been asked to advise a similar campaign in neighboring Oregon, as well as Arizona. My sister Mariette also deserves applause: she was the loving grandmother who stepped in to care for Susan's two young book-lovers when Susan was deeply immersed in the campaign. Susan is not trained as a librarian; her doctorate is in linguisitics. But she loves books, visits the public library regularly with her kids, and has bookshelves in the living room bursting with good stories. It sounds to me as if the State of Washington is cooking up a recipe for success with school libraries. Hooray!