Grasshopper on the Road by Arnold Lobel
By Gordon Campbell
There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.
When a love affair goes bad, adults can always go off and exorcise it by writing a novel. However, when those painful events happen to a children’s book author, as Arnold Lobel said in a 1977 interview*, the process must necessarily be different. Such books are for children, after all. Yet many of the emotions involved …loss, anxiety, pleasure, joy etc – are by no means foreign to children. The difference in the end, as Lobel concluded, can really come down to the degree of openness about much the same set of feelings.
This was something that Lobel ( 1933 –1987) learned the hard way. As a child he had told stories spontaneously at school to help his teachers fill in the dead time during class. It was a skill he quickly buried as a teenager, only to retrieve in later life. As a young married man who couldn’t abide the routine of working in an office, he chose to freelance in what was then the limited and financially impoverished ghetto of children’s book illustration. The drawing came easy, but the writing was always a grind. All his life, Lobel had to work extremely hard to achieve his clear and apparently effortless prose.
In his view, Lobel’s breakthrough as a writer and illustrator happened when he stopped writing for children – a process that had by the late 1960s generated several pleasant and competent books – and started writing from his own life. “ I suddenly realized that if I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a writer like any writer, and it was going to come from myself. All of the Frog and Toad stories are based on adult pre-occupations, really. I was able to tilt them somehow, so that a child could appreciate them too, but I think that adults also enjoy them…because they’re really adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories. “
The tone of Lobel’s best books is pretty distinctive, and their apparent simplicity is deceptive. “Maurice Sendak,” the reviewer John Donovan once brilliantly observed, “sees the dark and illuminates it – while Arnold Lobel sees the light, and shares it.” Lobel died in 1987, allegedly from AIDS – though to my knowledge that was never publicly confirmed by his family. It may be a stretch to make the connection, but a lot of his work deals affectionately with the comforts of home and friendship, yet from a certain wry distance.
In his masterpiece Owl at Home for instance, the stories and illustrations beautifully convey both the warm, earthy comforts of home – and the quiet madness of being home alone, for far too long. Owl is endearing, but as Lobel indicated in the same 1977 interview, he is also a psychotic – and not a mere neurotic like Toad, who retains a grasp of reality, and kicks against its confines. Instead, Owl is a homebody who has all but lost touch with the normal rules of time and space. Think of Jack Nicholson in The Shining but without an axe, and armed only with a piercing innocence.
In fact, I’d argue that it is precisely because Lobel’s characters are often such fervent balls of frustration and delusion that they remain so popular with adults. Toad for instance, reads stories to his seeds to try and speed up the frustratingly slow business of gardening. Toad again, in an episode from Frog and Toad Are Friends, has a complete meltdown over losing a button : “He was very angry. He jumped up and down and screamed: “The whole world is covered with buttons, and not one of them is mine !” In the background, his pragmatic friend Frog stands back, weighing the options on how to calm down his demented friend. When we’re in Toad mode, we all need to have a sensible friend like Frog on hand.
So which is Lobel’s best work ? Owl at Home is now widely regarded as a classic. Earlier this year, it was astonishing to hear Kate di Goldi read its best chapter ( which is called ‘Tearwater Tea’ ) in its entirety on National Radio. So I’ve chosen instead to focus on a lesser known book, Grasshopper on the Road.
Yes, the glancing aside in the title to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is quite deliberate. Like the Beats, Grasshopper is a free spirit who is keenly alert to the entrapment potential of domesticity and the daily round. Yet instead of hipster scorn, Grasshopper displays an almost Zen level of tolerance. One by one, the stories play off the wandering Grasshopper against the slaves of routine that he encounters on his travels.
Early on for instance, he meets a crowd of fundamentalists who believe only in the beauty of the morning, and who will not tolerate praise for any other time of day. There is the housefly, whose search for domestic tidiness leads her into a happy but frenzied crusade for cleanliness. A process that began by her discovering a spot on her rug and that ends up with her trying to sweep her room, her path, her street, and then the entire world clean, clean, clean of all its dirt and disorder.
Next, there is the bug who sets the conditions – rules are rules ! – for a completely impractical, but well-meant public transport system. There are the airy butterflies – these are the tennis playing housewives of this saga – who rejoice in doing the very same thing together, every single day….and through it all steps the non-judgemental figure of the grasshopper, politely respectful but untouched…by these attempts to recruit him to various forms of bondage.
Grasshopper and Owl, as I say, are essentially alone. In his most popular series, the Frog and Toad books, Lobel did deal with the nature of friendship but treated it as a union of complimentary opposites between Frog, the wise pragmatist, and Toad the impulsive ball of emotion. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to find that Lobel’s own favourite poem among all the Mother Goose stories was the tale of Hannah Bantry, which conveys a pretty amusing image of solitary abandon : “Hannah Bantry in the pantry/gnawing on a mutton bone / How she gnawed it/How she clawed it/ when she found herself alone.”
Almost invariably, the drawings involve a limited palette of colours. often he uses just browns and greens ( Frog and Toad) with additional shades of peach and grey say, in Uncle Elephant. Such muted tones and simplicity are not for everyone. These days, Lobel’s books stand in contrast to the jokey, hard-driving, bells and whistles kind of books that are premised on the short attention span that children are alleged to have. Well, nothing kills the party more quickly than an adult hell bent on inflicting fun on any kid in sight. Lobel did something far less common. There’s an immensely tolerant, wry amusement woven into the fabric of his stories.
Freedom in the end, becomes its own reward. Ultimately, at close of day, Grasshopper finds a place to rest : “He lay down in a soft place. He knew that in the morning, the road would still be there, taking him on and on, to wherever he wanted to go..” – by Gordon Campbell
* Quotes and biographical data in this story are taken from “ An Interview with Arnold Lobel” by Roni Natov and Geraldine DeLuca in the vol 1 No 1 issue (1977) of The Lion and The Unicorn journal on children’s literature.