- An Interview with Arnold Lobel
Arnold Lobel is the author and illustrator of over sixteen children's books, including the prize-winning Frog and Toad are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, and Mouse Tales. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.
GD: How did you begin writing for children?
AL: Well, I began writing for children because I couldn't do anything else. I had gone to art school, started working in advertising agencies, and hated it. This was in the mid 50's, at which time there really was not a children's book market, strangely enough. There was Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey, and, of course, Sendak had just begun. It was really a very small field, and I said, "Well, perhaps I would like to try that." I would go to employment agencies and say, "I think I would like to try illustrating children's books," and they would say "Oh no, you can't do that. There's no money in it" and since I had a family to support I said, "Well there's no money in it." But I finally decided that I could not get on the subway every morning and face the workaday world so I had to try free-lancing in children's book illustration. Like all fledgling artists, I found that the only way to do that was to make a portfolio and pound the pavements. Unless your mother happens to be an editor at Harper and Row, there is simply no other way to do it. I started with the small publishers, thinking that I would do better there, but they were totally disinterested in my work—which wasn't very good in those years. This was around 1960. [End Page 72] As a last resort I went to Harper and Row, which still is a very prestigious publisher of childern's books, and at that time was even greater because of Ursula Nordstrom—I don't know if you know her—but she was a very famous children's book editor, who was at that time in full tilt. She was publishing marvelous things. I went there really thinking they wouldn't be interested. But they did have a manuscript for me. It was something about salmon swimming upstream—64 pages of pictures of salmon swimming upstream. They wouldn't have dreamed of giving it to an artist who had any kind of reputation. But I did it and once I had my foot in the door and knew a few people, I was able to continue. They would give me manuscripts. I was an illustrator, and I turned to writing only as a kind of economic expediency, because you quickly learn that when you're illustrating for another author you get 5% royalties and when you're writing your own story you get 10%. That makes a big difference. That's why so many children's book illustrators turn to writing. I feel that I'm a trained illustrator and a lucky amateur in terms of writing.
RN: That's very interesting. I don't feel that way about your work.
AL: Well, apparently nobody does, but I feel that way about myself. I'm really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I'm in quicksand a bit. I don't really know what I'm doing. It's very intuitive.
GD: How do you come upon an idea for a story?
AL: Oh, heaven knows. Well, how does an adult author come upon an idea for a story? It's lifetime experience. It's just that I transmogrify everything to children because that's [End Page 73] my particular medium. You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children. The...