Humility is a beautiful, elusive quality, a virtue that’s fallen completely out of fashion. Google its definition and you can ponder a graph showing the word’s diminishing use in our language from 1885 to today. A century ago, we talked a good deal about humility. Today, not so much.
Because I read to young children once a week when I visit their classrooms to deliver guidance lessons, I’m always on the lookout for children’s books that illustrate virtue through the characters we meet in them.
Books highlighting humility may help counteract what NY Times columnist David Brooks in The Road to Character calls the “culture of the Big Me,” with its self-promoting presence in Disney films and pretty much everywhere else today. Children are naturally egocentric in their early development and books provide models that can encourage them (and me, as we read together) to shrink our prideful stink. I’m constantly challenged to grow when I meet the characters in the best books written for children. Two frogs and a toad are among them.
Frank, the adorable young frog in Eric Drachman’s A Frog Thing, is a model worth considering. His parents, not unlike characters in the children’s flicks Brooks finds problematic, have told their young son he can do anything he sets his mind to.
There’s a problem with their unqualified affirmation of Frank’s abilities, however.
Their little frog really wants to fly. Frank’s parents are thus forced to adjust the “you can do anything” message they’ve given their son.
His concerned father explains:
Frankie, when we said you could do anything you set your mind to, we meant any … FROG THING. See, flying is a … BIRD THING … just like staying underwater forever is a … FISH THING.”
Frank will not be swayed. Having set his mind to flying, he flaps, flops and suffers the jeering of his peers.
Suddenly, everything changes. A baby bird falls in the water and Frank leaps into action, diving into the pond, rescuing the little bird and delivering it to a grateful mother robin who offers to repay Frank for his kindness. Frank replies, “Oh, it was nothing, Ma’am.”
What follows is a moment of sheer delight. At the insistence of the mother robin that there must be something she can do for him, Frank discloses that he really, really wants to fly. She asks him to wait and returns moments later with another bird. Holding a stick between them, the two robins urge Frank to hold on tight. With Frank gripping the stick between them, they sail over the pond to the astonishment of Frank’s friends and parents below.
After their landing, the mother bird gives Frank an affectionate hug and tells him what a special frog he is. “You really can do anything you set your mind to!” his father croaks moments later.
But the modest little frog doesn’t allow the admiration he’s receiving inflate his ego. “Well…any frog thing, maybe,” he replies. “The birds were the ones flying. I was just holding on.”
Frank brightens as he adds, “But I do think I could be one of the great swimmers!” And he happily joins his friends swimming in the pond.
A Frog Thing is a very special book. This sweet story, tenderly illustrated by James Muscarello, celebrates selfless heroism, gratitude and perseverance without self-aggrandizement. Frank, the modest frog, leaves us cheered and determined, yet realistic about using our own gifts.
My favorite characters from the riparian world are Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad. Each episode in the collected Frog and Toad stories repays many, many readings. Sophie Hileman, in an insightful tribute, calls them “pure, unashamed delight.” I couldn’t agree more.
Frog is a sunny, helpful companion in these charming early readers. Toad is lovably grumpy and often hilarious. One of the great strengths of the Frog and Toad tales, as Hileman rightly notes, is that they’re “completely free of any moralistic trait.” Their truth arises naturally from Frog and Toad’s shared experience.
“The Dream,” Frog and Toad Together’s final chapter, is a splendid little tale about the problem of pride.
In it we find Toad dreaming he’s on a stage. Lobel’s illustrations are as delightful as his text, and in this one Toad wears a ruffled, Elizabethan costume featuring a large hat with swooping plume. He “humbly” bows in the spotlight as a voice announces, “PRESENTING THE GREATEST TOAD IN ALL THE WORLD!” Frog, the sole member of the audience, applauds his friend from the front row.
The show continues with Toad playing the piano “very well,” walking a tightrope without falling, and finally, dancing “all over the stage.” With each feat, Toad looks into the audience and asks Frog if he can do the same thing, and Frog, humbly comfortable in his own skin, replies that he can’t. But he begins to look “very, very small.”
As Toad does the final dazzling dance, he shouts to Frog below, “Frog, can you be as wonderful as this?”
Frog does not reply. He is nowhere to be found. The voice announces Toad’s next amazing act, but Toad is panicked, having realized that his friend has disappeared.
“Shut up!” he screams at the voice. “Come back, Frog!” Toad calls in desperation. “I will be lonely!”
Suddenly he awakens. Frog is standing right by his bed. “Frog, is that really you?” asks Toad. “And are you your own right size?”
“Yes, I think so,” answers Frog.
Our hearts share Toad’s relief as we come to the story’s final lines.
“Frog, I am so glad that you came over,” said Toad.
“I always do,” said Frog.
Lobel adds that after eating a large breakfast that morning, Frog and Toad had a fine, long day together.
I once shared this story with two kindergarten boys, top readers in their class. When we’d finished, I mentioned that we read stories because they’re fun, but the best stories also teach us things about life that are helpful to know. I asked them what might be helpful to remember in this story. One of them, a dark-haired English language learner with an amazing capacity for insight, replied without hesitating.
“Sometimes if you brag too much you lose your friend,” he said.
The three of us silently soaked in that truth.
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Arnold Lobel reads the entire Frog and Toad collection in this Audible edition of the stories. With charming sound effects accompanying the author’s voice, it’s bears repeated listenings and always brings a laugh.
Do you still love to be little? Find more posts on children on Sparrowfare’s Fledglingfare page, including Wander into the Wardrobe: Reasons to Return to Narnia in December.
More posts connected to David Brooks’ The Quest for Character: Confessions of a Cannonball: An Invitation to Hunger for Humility and Beyond the Résumé and the Eulogy: Virtue, the Little Way.