As a young child, one of our daughters had an exceedingly difficult time controlling her temper and her tongue. When I had my act together, I would spin thinly veiled bedtime stories for her about a mice family dealing with the same issues as she and her siblings faced. Listening to those tales allowed her to glimpse storms and mistakes in her own world in a safe and gentle way.
Animals are a theme in many children’s books. Sometimes, as in Danny and the Dinosaur or Morris Goes to School (he’s a moose), the animals run into problems as they try to fit into a human world, but their speech and emotions are quite human. In other books, like those about the hippopotami George and Martha or the badger in Bread and Jam for Frances, the experiences of the animals, like those in my mice story, have little to do with their animalness. Writing stories with animal protagonists lets the author introduce whimsy and allow for adorable illustrations.
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series rank high in the read-to-me charts. I actually read them to my children in English as well as in Hebrew translation. While frogs make a dramatic appearance in Exodus during the second plague, my familiarity with the Hebrew for toad comes from these books rather than the Bible. The stories, which feature strong bonds of friendship between the two amphibians, are short, humorous and sweet.
All this led to my groaning audibly when my son forwarded me an article in The New Yorker magazine triumphantly trumpeting the author’s homosexuality. Aha! All of a sudden, we are meant to see a hidden message in the close connection between Frog and Toad, even though there isn’t a hint of anything amorous or sexual in the books.
No such hints surround George, Martha, Morris, the Dinosaur, or Frances the badger either. For the record, they are missing from Beatrix Potter’s books and Aesop’s Fables as well. How quaint. Generations were able to read stories to children without feeling the need to find adult subliminal messages. Can’t we please leave it like that?