Friday, December 11, 2009

Friends ... together ... all year

When I became a librarian, it had been many, many years since I'd needed any beginning reader resources, so I had no experience with Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad. Wow! Pretty much better for adult readers/listeners along with their young friends than anything else out there (at the time). Despite my affinity for Frog and Toad, I'd never read the four books that are included in The Arnold Lobel Collection: Owl at Home, Grasshopper on the Road, Uncle Elephant and Small Pig. And, like Frog and Toad, these simple (but not simple-minded) animal stories are a cut above the usual fare.

I think Owl might be my favorite, as he's just plain loopy: he lets the winter in to destroy his house, can't figure out what
the two bumps are at the bottom of his bed (his feet ... I can just hear the kids giggling over this one), and cries into his teakettle for tea water. But then there are the protesting beetles who only support mornings and the mosquito who insists that Grasshopper use his ferry boat to make his way across a small puddle. There's the touching relationship at the heart of Uncle Elephant, as the elderly uncle (with "more wrinkles than a tree has leaves") cares for his possibly-orphaned nephew, who couldn't accompany his parents on their boat trip because his trunk was running (what an image!). And the wackiness of Small Pig forced out of his muddy sty by an overly fastidious owner. Each one is just a gem -- good things do indeed come in small packages.

An actor named Mark Linn-Baker narrates these four stories. It appears that he is married to Lobel's daughter Adrianne,
and he starred in a musical, A Year with Frog and Toad (he also graduated from the Yale School of Drama with my brother ... sorry, there are so few brushes with fame, however small, I must indulge). He reads these simple stories very well, reading at a tempered pace, but not a ponderous, deliberative one. There is variation in his expression, as Linn-Baker highlights the irony (for the adults) and humor in each story and situation.

He doesn't do a lot with voices, but I did enjoy those that he employs in the Grasshopper stories -- the indignant "morning-ist" beetles and the sweet little mosquito who has the ferry franchise on his little puddle. It is with Uncle Elephant, though, that I am most charmed by Linn-Baker. His grandfatherly gravitas is nicely counterpointed by the young elephant's seriousness and growing warmth for his unusual relative.

The audiobook includes some cheerful music at the beginning and end. It might have been nice to include it between the stories. A woman's voice introduces each story, which is entirely unnecessary as Linn-Baker could have done it, of course. All-in-all though, a very good audiobook. Considering that beginning readers can be absolutely deadly to listen to, this is no small praise. I give a lot of the credit to Lobel, whose way with controlled vocabulary is pretty much unmatched. Or, as the article that is the first link in this post explains, he simply tossed out the controlled vocabulary (Dolch list ... still in use after 60 years?) and just wrote a couple of good stories.

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