In Owl At Home, Arnold Lobel’s 1975 illustrated early reader, solitary Owl scolds winter for coming into his house. He is frightened by a creature under his covers, which turns out to be his feet. He makes himself cry in order to enjoy a pot of tear-water tea. He runs up and down the stairs in order to be in two places at once. He worries about the moon.
Throughout these five short episodes, Owl never encounters any other animate creatures. He talks to the weather, his legs, objects in the sky. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that they never reply.
“If I am looking at you, moon, then you must be looking back at me. We must be very good friends,” Owl says.
Aha, the reader thinks, the moon isn’t a real friend—it just seems like it’s there for you. The moon begins to follow Owl and Owl shoos it away. He feels sad when he is home safe in bed and cannot see his friend—and relieved when it reappears from behind clouds to shine in his window. Poor, deluded Owl.
At another point, Owl tells himself vignettes of small things and objects, about wasted potential, and isolation, in order to make himself cry:
“Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again,” said Owl…. “Books that cannot be read,” said Owl, because some of the pages have been torn out.” … “Mornings nobody saw because everybody was sleeping,” sobbed Owl.
“Soon,” Lobel writes, “the kettle was all filled up with tears.”
And yet, while the episode chronicles small moments of stunning loneliness, the chapter ends on a note of optimism. “Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. ‘It tastes a bit salty,’ he said, ‘but tear water-tea is always very good.’”
After his recitation, Owl’s decision is to be happy—to be nourished by his temporary sadness. He seems to be the master of these sad stories.
And yet…if Owl understands the illusory nature of these stories, does he know that his friendship with the moon is also not real? Does it matter, if it makes him happy? Is Owl in command of the narrative? Are we?
Arnold Lobel is perhaps best known for creating Frog and Toad, who make up one of the funniest, most poignant relationships in children’s literature.
The first book, Frog and Toad Are Friends, came out in 1970. The pair is a classic odd couple: Frog is sunny and energetic; Toad frets about buttons, swimsuits, and about not being able to think of stories. He has moments of deep and deeply real insecurity and melancholy that always find reassurance in Frog’s abiding friendship. Frog and Toad can also be seen as a portrait of male-male love. In total, Lobel wrote four Frog and Toad books. (Another two were discovered more recently and released by Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne.)
When reading the Frog and Toad books, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Lobel’s life. In a May 2016 piece for The New Yorker, Colin Stokes traces Lobel’s origins as a children’s book author and illustrator—sometimes in collaboration with his wife Anita Kempler. Stokes also notes that Lobel was gay. Lobel was one of the early casualties of AIDS and died of complications from the disease in 1987. He had come out to his wife and children in 1974. Owl At Home was published in 1975. It is hard not to read some of Owl’s loneliness—the wasted potential that he cries about in the tear-water tea, the ignored history of objects and creatures—as being about Lobel’s personal, hidden tragedies.
But perhaps we don’t have the right to look at Lobel’s story—his stories—through that lens. Lobel’s books, after all, are ultimately happy. They affirm friendship. They show that people (or owls and amphibians) need and find joy in ties, even while acknowledging that relationships are as ephemeral as life.
My experience of Owl at Home has always been social. I likely first encountered the book during one of those important early kid’s events: story time.
Between kindergarten and third grade, my class went to the school library at least once a week for a reading with our librarian, Ms Wilkins, and to take out books.
Ms Wilkins was tall and gray-haired. She wore a heavy man’s watch, which I sometimes stared at when she read. She introduced us to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. She read us Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and paused to explain to us how the author used collage to make up his illustrations. I still remember the care she took to talk to us about each book that she selected, about how pictures and words were put together. She was teaching us how to see, what to look for in narrative—something that I don’t think anyone had ever really done for me before. I remember her as a reserved woman—not the kind of person whom one would peg as someone who wanted to work with kids. But as my reading advanced, she listened to me quietly when I told her I wanted books like Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. She didn’t grimace or laugh—and she steered me to Enid Blyton, P. L. Travers, and Dodie Smith.
To this day, the memory of Ms Wilkins—of sitting cross-legged on a low carpet of the library surrounded by other kids, of listening to her read in her low, scratchy voice—brings me immense comfort. It was this same feeling of intimacy and sharing that I tried to bring to my daughter when I read to her about Frog and Toad, and Owl.
In the wake of the US election, I have been thinking a lot about the uses of reading and writing. I dwell on how useless writing—my writing—seems to be. I consider this while taking refuge in stories that conclude happily and unhappily—in narratives that have the courtesy to end while our reality continues rudely and dangerously on.
We do think of reading and writing as solitary pursuits—perhaps they’re even selfish. But reading can take the form of a parent reading to a child, a story time for a class of eager kids. Or it can be one person and a book.
I tell myself this when I write: that a book may be an inanimate object, but it is also contains the words of a person reaching out. I tell myself that empathy works even when results are not immediately visible. Or I tell myself nothing and just go on.
At the end of Owl at Home, Owl has fallen asleep. The moon is still shining on him. It is there if Owl needs it.