Articles

Behind the Scenes with a Beloved Children’s Book Illustrator

by An Xiao on March 12, 2014

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Arnold Lobel, “There was an old pig with a pen,” final illustration for ‘The Book of Pigericks’ (1983), graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 17 7/8 x 15 7/8 in (courtesy and © the Estate of Arnold Lobel)

SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone who’s read Arnold Lobel’s iconic Frog and Toad series may wonder: why pick a frog and a toad? And what’s the difference between a frog and a toad anyway? “They look a good deal alike, but are still very different,” Lobel is quoted as saying, in the the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s current exhibition. “A frog seems to smile, while a toad is clearly a more introverted, slow-moving, worrisome creature.”

Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel, part of the museum’s ongoing series on Jewish children’s book authors and illustrators, takes us through the sketches, thoughts, and imagination of the Caldecott Award–winning artist. Though his most famous work is almost certainly Frog and Toad, Lobel has also illustrated Fables, Mother Goose rhymes, and The Complete Book of Hanukkah. The museum show goes behind the scenes, with lovely quotes from Lobel on his process and a comprehensive view of his work.

Arnold Lobel, “And soon you will have a garden,” final illustration for Frog and Toad Together, 1980. Graphite, ink, and wash on paper, 17 15/16 x 27 7/8 in. Courtesy of The Estate of Arnold Lobel. (click to enlarge)

Arnold Lobel, “And soon you will have a garden,” final illustration for ‘Frog and Toad Together’ (1980), graphite, ink, and wash on paper, 17 15/16 x 27 7/8 in (courtesy the Estate of Arnold Lobel) (click to enlarge)

“I do think the show is representative of his oeuvre,” curatorial associate Claire Frost told Hyperallergic. For their research, the curatorial team dove into the collections at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art as well as Lobel’s estate. Frost and Julie Gregorian, who manages family programs at the museum, noted that, in addition to the wide sweep of work in the show, interactivity was an important priority.

At the entrance to the exhibition, kids (and grown-ups, too!) can find little bags with cute finger puppets and cards. The puppet animals represent characters from Lobel’s art, while the cards suggest different ways to engage with the material, like telling a story inspired by an illustration or looking for certain characters and details in the work. Other interactive elements involve creating a self-portrait at a work station and playing with “piggericks” — limericks about pigs.

“What we were hoping for with the animals,” Gregorian noted, “was a way to connect what you have in your hand with an artwork.” Although when I visited the show I didn’t see any kids doing so, she noted that they’ve responded positively: “Kids are liking the search and find. Storytelling is happening.” I asked Gregorian why the museum chose to go the analog route; she responded, “It’s kind of an innocent, pre-digital experience. We wanted to focus on the process because that’s so much what this exhibit is about.”

Arnold Lobel, "The Crocodile in the Bedroom," final illustration for 'Fables' (1980), graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 17 15/16 x 13 7/8 in (courtesy and c the Estate of Arnold Lobel)

Arnold Lobel, “The Crocodile in the Bedroom,” final illustration for ‘Fables’ (1980), graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 17 15/16 x 13 7/8 in (courtesy and © the Estate of Arnold Lobel)

For so many of us, books are an entry into the worlds of visual art and illustration. Although smartphones and tablets have steadily become part of the media diets of people of all ages, printed books still have a strong value, especially for young people — their illustrations tell stories that can enliven kids’ imaginations and help them understand a story and its characters. Showing Lobel’s process and inviting both children and adults to engage with it is a lovely way to show the artistic process in action, to bring his drawings to life.

“There is a little world at the end of my pencil,” Lobel once said. “I am the stage director, the costume designer, and the man who pulls the curtain.”

Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel runs through March 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco).

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