Arnold Lobel’s storybook characters Frog and Toad are two of the literary giants from my childhood that have enjoyed second, third and (currently) fourth revivals for me as I’ve shared their stories with each of my children. Although I still enjoy these funny and sweet stories, by the 20th or 30th read (that’s a weekly count, not a lifetime count) I’m not on the edge of my seat wondering what will happen next. I begin to wonder things like: Where do they get their cute little coats? How can they sew with those crazy, squishy bipedal hand-feet? Why are Frog and Toad anthropomorphized, but the birds aren’t? And then of course the navel gazing begins—ghosts of my little girl responses to these stories flit through me and I wonder just how much this single set of stories has left a lifelong imprint on my thoughts and habits, even on my deeper sense of my self. And, in turn, how do they affect my daughter who also wants to read these stories over and over again? I am a believer in the power of books to transform their readers. So what transformations are taking place in her?
I need to tell you something about my daughter—we’ll call her Iz. Iz is not fond of any food that is remotely healthy. The tomato sauce on her spaghetti must give her the nutrients she needs because everything else is starch and cheese—and sometimes even “cheez.” But I have this voice in me that says: Don’t make big issues around food! Don’t make food into reward or punishment, don’t make her feel bad about wanting something that tastes good to her. I know what Toad would say: “Blah.”
So, when in doubt, I look to books. “Cookies” is one of my and Iz’s favorite Frog and Toad stories. For those unfamiliar or who haven’t read the story 100-odd times, here’s my 41 year-old self’s retelling: “Cookies” opens with Toad baking a batch of cookies. Toad finds these cookies so delicious he must immediately take them to share with his best friend, Frog, who lives in a quaint woodland cottage not far away. Frog partakes, stating: “These are the best cookies I’ve ever eaten!” and the two of them proceed to eat more and more of Toad’s cookies. Frog, ever the voice of reason, suggests that they should stop eating, or they will soon be sick. Toad agrees. And…they keep eating and eating, exclaiming “just one more!” with each cookie. Recognizing where this is going, Frog explains to Toad that they just need willpower! Frog then helps out their willpower by putting the cookies in a box and making them progressively more and more difficult to reach at each turn of the page. He smiles, sure that they can exercise their collective will and avoid stomach aches. But Toad frowns, sad and worried more than angry or frustrated, not at all sure he likes how this is unfolding. Finally, in order to save himself and his friend from the threat of cookie-induced tummy ache, Frog takes the cookies outside, puts them on the ground, and calls for the birds to come and eat the cookies.
In the final illustration, Frog is pleased with himself, smiling as he lays a magnanimous hand on Toad’s shoulder. But Toad is crestfallen, reaching a helpless hand out towards the cookies even as the birds pick up every last one. The story ends as Frog notes with pride that they now have “lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad replies: “You may keep it all, Frog. I am going home now to bake a cake.” (Toad always has the best lines.)
When I read “Cookies” now I can still viscerally feel my little-girl-responses to the dilemma facing Frog and Toad, with my mom-response and academic-critical-response layered across the top. The little girl identified immediately with Toad, who simply wants to share and enjoy his cookies. She was somewhat puzzled by Frog’s admonitions about “willpower” (a “power” which can’t be all that strong, she thought, if it can’t even stand up to a box of cookies tied up and sitting on a high shelf). The mom and academic in me doesn’t want her children growing up with anxieties about food, and analyzes each turn of phrase looking for signs of an “unhealthy relationship with food.” (Again, I say: “Blah.”) But honestly, these “adult” responses all feel artificial to me. Maybe it’s seeing my open and trusting Iz juxtaposed with the perspective I’ve gained from living in a culture steeped in support groups, focus groups, political agendas, target markets and diagnoses that do everything to set us apart from others and little to bring us together. Whatever the impetus, if I step back from identifying myself with any of these roles, I can see that Lobel simply has Frog and Toad present two different ways of responding to a dilemma, all the while poking fun at how seriously these amphibian bipeds are about their cookies and the choices before them. More than anything, Lobel trusts children—something rarely seen in today’s world of children’s edutainment. He gives them the chance to ponder a few of the big issues around food in this simple, sweet and funny story: the concept that food may be good for us or bad for us, that our appetites may defy our brain and its logic making us desire something that we’re told is bad for us and posits that our flimsy human will can’t stand up to the temptation of a delicious chocolate chip cookie anyway. There is thankfully no moral. I think my literary friends Frog and Toad let me and Iz know that the childish instinct to trust life not fear, and to trust friends not ideologies, is a good instinct to hold onto.
Kate Hess lives and works and plays in Iowa City under the titles of mother, librarian, writer, reader, learner and doer. She invites discussion on play at learninglikechildren.wordpress.com.