Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)




Thursday, May 16, 2019

Why We Need Frog, Toad, and Flannery O'Connor

Yes, you read that correctly!  So what on earth do Frog and Toad have in common with Flannery O'Connor?
  

Well, it all started with a trip to Savannah.  Then my friend sent me an insightful blog post about Frog and Toad.

First, Flannery. 

I recently returned from a trip to Savanah, Georgia, birthplace of Flannery O'Connor.  If you've been to Savanah, you know it is made up of all these shadowy, tree-filled town squares - 22 in all, each with it's own park (think Forest Gump, on a park bench in Savanah waiting for his bus).

Anyway, when we first arrived, we happened upon the CUTEST bookstore: E. Shaver Fine Books, right next to Madison Square.


I was in heaven, especially when I found a little corner dedicated to Flannery O'Connor!  I bought two books: A Literary Guide to Flannery O'Connor's Georgia and Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings.

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) has always held a fascination for me.  Maybe because I'm from the South.  I was introduced to her not through her novels or short stories, but through her essays in Mystery and Manners and then her letters in The Habit of Being.  Full of quick wit, self deprecating humor, and wisdom, her thoughtful letters and essays brought me comfort and many "aha!" moments.  Then I read her short story Parker's Back! (More about her short stories in a minute.)

From the bookstore, we moved on to Lafayette Square. 


At one end is Mary Flannery O'Connor's birthplace and childhood home - now turned museum - dedicated to her.


Mary, as she was known until college, grew up on Lafayette Square during the depression and attended nearby Catholic schools.


At the other end of the square is the church Flannery attended, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist .  It's a truly gorgeous building, inside and out, and the oldest Catholic Church in Georgia.


So that brings me to Flannery O'Connor's faith and writings (and eventually to Frog and Toad - stick with me here!)

Not familiar with Flannery?  She is considered one of the great American storytellers. Before her tragic death which claimed her young life at the age of 39, she had written two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as commentaries and reviews.  (She died from Lupus, as did her father, who died when she was just fourteen.)

Flannery O'Connor at her home in Milledgeville, Ga., 1962. [source] Credit

A devout Roman Catholic, O'Connor wrote from a foundation of a profound Christian faith and an experience of illness and suffering.  Her Southern characters battle between good and evil, sin and redemption. Her deep stories, though harsh and violent, often have another side: a humorous, yet grave commentary on the human race.

Why the dark stories? Flannery was always concerned with mystery and grace, and through her characters she felt she had to shock contemporary readers out of their complacency in order to consider life's biggest concern:  sin and salvation.

For the hard of hearing you shout, 
and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
-Flannery O'Connor

Okay, crazy segue (not Segway, though we did see lots in Savannah), but we have finally arrived at what I have to share about Frog and Toad...  

Turns out that Arnold Lobel's short (very short) stories of Frog and Toad had a concern for sin and salvation as well!


In his blog post "Why We Need Frog and Toad More Then Ever"here, Joshua Gibbs, shares some wise insight about the moral universe of these two amphibious characters, as opposed to the lack of moral universe in many contemporary children's books that mainly focus on praise and celebration of the characters:

Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth, and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.


Do you remember what Frog and Toad did in order to stop eating the cookies?  They tried to get will power.  After putting the cookies up in a box and tying it up with string, Frog and Toad realized they could simply climb a ladder, reach the box, and untie the string.  So they decided to feed the rest of the cookies to the birds.  Frog said they now had no cookies, but lots of will power.  But Toad announced he was going to go bake a cake!  (I wonder who he fed that to. Ah, temptation!)

Joshua goes on to note:
As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self. [source]

Do "good books" matter for young souls?  

Yes! Flannery would concur (and does):
...the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values. (From "Novelist and Believer", here)

Well, Frog and Toad are definitely comedic!  
So there you are.  
We need Frog and Toad (and Flannery O'Conner)!



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