Arnold Lobel, the subject of a new exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, likely isn’t a household name for many. Those who do recognize his name probably know him as the author and illustrator of the beloved “Frog and Toad” series of picture books that, despite having been published 40 years ago, continue to be a mainstay on children’s bookshelves.
As for what people don’t know about the artist? It could fill a museum, says CJM curator Karen Tsujimoto.
“Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel,” a celebration of the man behind the drawings, opened this week. With more than 100 original illustrations (including sketches and works on scrap paper that highlight Lobel’s evolution as an artist), an interactive area where kids can dream up their own Lobel-style creatures, plus a slew of family-friendly programming, the exhibition is designed to appeal to book lovers of all ages.
“There’s something universal and incredibly warm about his work, whether you’re a child or an adult,” says Tsujimoto, who organized the exhibition in collaboration with the staff at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. “He just delighted in being able to bring joy to a child, of course. But I also think people are going to be surprised at the breadth of his work, and how artistically talented he was, how he honed his craft.”
Over a 26-year career, the artist illustrated nearly 100 titles and was recognized with several honors, including a Caldecott Medal, two Caldecott Honors, and a Newbery Honor.
Born in Los Angeles in 1933, Lobel was brought up mainly in Schenectady, N.Y., after his parents divorced and arranged for Lobel’s grandparents — German Jewish immigrants — to take care of him. He described himself in later years as an unhappy child who took refuge in the local library, where he found picture books that were “capable of suggesting everything that is good about feeling well and having positive thoughts about being alive,” as he would later write.
His love of books soon turned into a passion for storytelling, which he used to make friends — he would entertain other kids by inventing stories and illustrating them.
Lobel earned a degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1955, marrying Anita Kempler, a classmate, the same year. They lived across the street from the Prospect Park Zoo, which they visited often with their children. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that animal characters began to figure heavily into Lobel’s illustrations and early books in the ’60s.
But his real breakthrough came in 1970, when an editor convinced him to try writing for “early readers” (a genre Dr. Seuss had just made popular). Lobel decided to draw on his childhood memories of summers spent in Vermont, where he was allowed to adopt frogs and toads as pets. Over nine years and four books, his central characters emerged as incredibly relatable protagonists, learning life lessons as humans do and forging a dynamic friendship over the course of their adventures around the pond.
Lobel’s other work throughout that decade and the next are less well known, but no less beautiful, says Tsujimoto, noting that she’s particularly fond of his highly imaginative 1986 collection of Mother Goose and other fairy tales, inspired by the artist’s understanding that the rhymes came from an era “when people used to wipe their mouths with their hair.”
He also illustrated books for other popular children’s writers such as poet Jack Prelutsky, and was actively writing and drawing up until his death at age 54 from a heart attack.
CJM executive director Lori Starr said the retrospective is part of the museum’s special effort to have a large-scale exhibition for children every year around the holidays; other children’s book authors and illustrators to get the CJM treatment have included Maurice Sendak and William Steig.
Among other programming around the exhibit, a full day of arts and crafts is planned for the museum’s Hanukkah celebration Nov. 29. In the morning is a family gallery tour designed to inspire kids to create a miniature sketchbook they can take home. There’s a “Hanukkah Hop” dance party at noon, followed by “Frog and Toad on the Big Screen” (featuring Lobel’s adored characters in claymation), and a drop-in art center in the afternoon (participants can create their own “Frog and Toad”-inspired Hanukkah cards with collage materials, stamps and watercolors).
On Dec. 7, the museum’s annual family gala is getting a Lobel spin — this year, it’s the “Frog and Toad Ball.” The early evening event will feature live theater, music and more.
The exhibit “is one of the ways we can make Jewish experiences accessible and entertaining for children, and that’s so core to the mission of the CJM,” said Starr.
She also suspects that a healthy number of nostalgic adults will come out for the show — kids or none. “I think the aspects that make [this exhibit] moving and entertaining are really timeless.”
“Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel” runs through March 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.thecjm.org