Arnold Lobel: An Appreciation

I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children.” — Arnold Lobel

As an author, I’m often asked to list some of my favorite writers. Of course, it’s impossible. There are too many. But one name always comes to my lips, Arnold Lobel. And I think the reason is this: his total commitment to children’s literature. To me, he was the master.

A while back I had the opportunity to write brief profiles of 75 children’s book authors and illustrators for a book titled, in lunk-headed fashion, The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (out of print, alas). I interviewed many amazing people — James Marshall, Barbara Cooney, Bill Martin, Jr., Barbara Park, Bernard Waber, Trina Schart Hyman, Kevin Henkes, etc. — but, unfortunately, I was too late for Arnold Lobel. He died after a long illness on December 4th, 1987. But I did my research, read most of his books, found his classic acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, and came away with great respect. I love the “Frog and Toad” titles, of course, and Fables, and Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, and my personal favorite, Whiskers and Rhymes. But more than any individual book, I most love his bright, shining spirit — his commitment to his craft — his intelligence — his deep feeling — his legacy.

Time rolls forward. These days, at social events, some good fellow will sidle up beside me, possibly curious about this palpable oddity, a real live children’s book writer in his midst. And he’ll ask, not unkindly, “Do you think you’ll ever try to write a real book?” Meaning, of course, an adult book.

I’m not insulted, much. I’ll just smile and say maybe, perhaps, I don’t know, but right now I’m pretty challenged trying to write children’s books.

When I first began to conjure the dream of becoming a writer, children’s books were not on my radar. I wanted to write great, important books and poems for deep-thinking adults. My dream did not include titles like Hiccups for Elephant or Wake Me In Spring. I used to frequently wonder if I was on the right path, and it’s a question that never entirely goes away, though it haunts me less and less. I think of Arnold Lobel and I am reassured by his pride, his deep belief in his work, his love of children’s literature. It comes down to, like he said, single-minded dedication. No half-measures. No apologies. “One of the secrets of writing good books for children,” Lobel once commented, “is that you can’t really write books for children; you must write books for yourself and about yourself.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In my upcoming book, Along Came Spider, there’s a school librarian who plays a minor but critical role in the story. Her name? Miss Lobel. Now you know how I dreamed up the name!

One comment

  1. Michael Napolitano says:

    I heard the name Arnold Lobel on National Public Radio today, and couldn’t remember where I had heard it before. Then it came to me; I was friends with his brother, Mitchell Stark on Long Island many years ago. Mitch once gave me an autographed copy of “The Strange Disappearance of Arthur Gluck” back when my son was a newborn. Wish i could find that book today!

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