Childhood on display in exhibit of Arnold Lobel’s work

Estate of Arnold Lobel/Courtesy

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“There is a little world at the end of my pencil,” said Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and author Arnold Lobel. “I am the stage director, the costume designer and the man who pulls the curtain.” The deceased Lobel, best known for his series of children’s books “Frog and Toad,” is honored in “Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel,” San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s latest exhibit. The show, which opened Nov. 21 and runs until March 2014, includes more than 100 original illustrations as well as interactive activities and examples of Lobel’s collaborations with other authors.

Lobel, who was raised by German-Jewish grandparents in New York, was said to have had an unhappy childhood plagued by bullies and a general sense of isolation. For him, the library was a place of refuge, a quiet place where otherworldly characters were alive and anything was possible. Despite his difficult adolescence, Lobel did appreciate his summer vacations in Vermont, where he remembered playing with small amphibians and taking them home as pets.

These very animals from his childhood holidays inspired his popular easy-reader series “Frog and Toad,” comical and often uplifting stories about friendship and morality. The two main characters, Frog and Toad, embark on various adventures together — building snowmen, eating cookies, swimming in the river and flying kites.

“(Frog and Toad) look a good deal alike but are still very different,” Lobel remarked. “A frog seems to smile, while a toad is clearly a more introverted, slow-moving, worrisome creature.”

Despite these differences, Lobel’s two characters seem to deeply care about each other. Lobel may have had other ideas, though. He commented on “a certain cruelty” inherent in the bond between Frog and Toad: Frog is overbearing, while Toad seems to be skillfully controlled by his friend. However, we never see Toad — whom Lobel lovingly described as “not completely psychotic” but “just your normal everyday neurotic” — rebelling against this constraint due to a kind of dependence he has on Frog’s friendship. Despite the hint toward a darker vision of the world, this may very well be an accurate portrayal of some relationships.

“Frog and Toad” has moral implications as well, teaching children valuable lessons about life. In one story, the two characters clean Toad’s disorganized house instead of waiting until “tomorrow.” In another, they discover the surprising perks of being alone. These scenes are done in watercolor, though most of the “Frog and Toad” collection is in the form of graphite or ink on paper. Lobel’s yellowing spiral notebook is on display, revealing a sketched outline for one of his “Frog and Toad” stories.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibit also includes Lobel’s colorful sketches from books such as “Fables.” “Fables,” which won a Caldecott Medal in 1981, is a charming storybook offering insight into human weaknesses and quirks through colorful and humorous illustrations.

“It is always difficult to pose as something that one is not,” reads the caption for a “Fables” illustration that features a large wolf miserably failing to disguise himself as an apple tree.

This comical element turns dark with Lobel’s illustrative work for children’s writer Jack Prelutsky. His style here is completely different than that of “Frog and Toad” or even “Fables.” He wields the pen with such precision and accuracy that it is impossible to guess at his talent with watercolors. Lobel tackles trolls, cyclopses, ghouls and skeletons for Prelutsky’s “Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep.” Bold, concise lines form figures. Etchings are simultaneously crisp and lush.

A fitting way to end the whimsical art show, a small station with miniature furniture marks the finish of the exhibit. The station is a space for children to form their own creative species of birds (a la Lobel’s “The Ice-Cream Cone Coot and Other Rare Birds”) and even write postcards to friends — whether they come in the form of a frog, toad or human being.

Addy Bhasin covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].