Friday, May 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Arnold Lobel, Fabulist

by Bill Doughty

Aesop. La Fontaine. "Uncle Remus." Hans Christian Anderson. Thurber. Orwell. Among the great fabulists – fable writers – we can add Arnold Lobel's name.

Author of the "Frog and Toad" series, "Ming Lo Moves the Mountain," "Owl at Home," and Caldecott Medal-winning "Fables," Lobel (May 22, 1933 – Dec. 4, 1987) was an artist and writer, who said writing was difficult because he was such a visual thinker.

His simple stories for various "I Can Read Books" held profound timeless ideas about ethics and morality.

In fact, he is interpreted as channeling the Buddhist dharma in a fascinating essay by Kathyryn Jeser-Morton. Christians and Jews can see his stories consistently reinforcing the Golden Rule; protagonists in Lobel's story frequently turn the other cheek, do unto others or practice "an eye for an eye" while young readers can appreciate the paradoxes. Lobel also inspired at least one "green Muslim" in the garden. 

Lobel's fables are universal for believers or nonbelievers. A writer who believes in the power of fabulist philosopher Lobel as "my hero" is Julia Donaldson, who writes in "The Guardian" that "the stories have a quality of joyful optimism celebrating things such as the spring and friendship in a fresh, unsentimental way."

Such is true in "Mouse Soup" (HarperCollins, 1977) a "Level 2" I Can Read Book for first through third graders. The story is filled with potential danger and creative innovative solutions. Spoiler alert: The quick-thinking mouse uses his wits – and some natural "weapons" – to outsmart and escape from a predatory weasel intent on making mouse soup.

Lobel's books are a great way to teach reading to children. In some cases military service members on deployment can get two copies of children's books and read to their sons and daughters as they read along, connected electronically. United Through Reading helps military families through a feedback loop of reading and recording reactions, bringing sponsors and children closer over time and distance.

From the UTR website: "One of the most difficult things a child can experience is having a parent separated from them for an indeterminate period of time. United Through Reading helps ease the stress of separation for military families by having service members who are separated from the children they love read children’s books aloud on video for the child to watch at home."

UTR provides information on how and where to participate. Also offered: lists of books as suggested reading at various reading levels. Titles include "Amelia Bedelia," "No, David," "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed," "Charlotte's Web," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and "Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success," among dozens of others. 

Of course, families can choose their own favorite story book, nonfiction book, or book of fables.

Arnold Lobel's "Mouse Soup" is a fun choice and a good starting point for more discussion for military families about how to be cautious in a sometimes dangerous world.

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