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.