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Arnold Lobel

By James Marshall

We are here this morning to honor a great artist and a wonderful man, a man we will miss as long as we live and an artist who has left a body of work that contains some of the most loved, admired, and beautifully crafted books ever published. John Cheever said that the essence of literature lies in the singularity of the person who creates it. Well, Arnold was a singular man. There was no one like him. There are no books like his. It is appropriate that we honor him in Lincoln Center, the cultural center of his city, the cultural center of the country.

There was always something appropriate about Arnold Lobel, appropriate in the very best sense. When he learned he had a fatal illness, he tried to convince himself and his friends that perhaps it was, after all, an appropriate time to die. But he soon gave up that notion. He realized that there was nothing at all appropriate about a man dying at the height of his creative powers. It was a horrible thing, and it was sad. He would not have called it a tragedy. We know it is.

But facing the fact that, as he put it, the jig was up, he conducted himself in an extraordinary way. When I asked him how he could be so brave, he became annoyed. He didn’t like that kind of talk. He said that bravery had nothing to do with it and that it wasn’t really so difficult to die. He said he’d decided to approach it as his new job, something that he had to do as well as he could.

How typical of Arnold. This, in fact, was very much the way he approached his art. Arnold was far too wise an artist to carry on about himself as an Artist. Rather, he considered himself a craftsman, a working illustrator. Well, Arnold Lobel began his career as a working illustrator in the sixties. But then something happened, shortly after the publication of Anita Lobel’s Sven’s Bridge(Harper): in the late sixties he started becoming Arnold Lobel. From that time on, he worked with a single-mindedness of purpose, polishing, refining, and respecting his art. I’ve heard him called a genius. I believe that he was, but I also believe that he made himself a genius, through a combination of instinct and hard work.

No one worked harder than Arnold. He worked like a dog. But paradoxically — because Arnold was such a master — one never sees the wheels turning. His books are full of light and air. There are some artists whose pages groan with self-importance — not Arnold. He accomplished what he did, I believe, by adhering to a simple but profound principle: he always, always remained true to himself. He knew what was right for him, and he never strayed. And he always avoided formula. Unlike some artists who have produced the same book for the past thirty years, Arnold created books that are always fresh and new and are never repeat performances.

Now that he is gone, many of his less-known or forgotten books will resurface. One of my own personal favorites is The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (Bradbury), a marvelous book full of wit and great invention. If you are an illustrator who is considering drawing “Old Mother Hubbard,” I advise you not to look at Arnold’s version. You won’t put pen to paper.

Now that he is gone, there will be books written about him — books that will cover various aspects of his work in greater depth. But I know that surely one aspect that will be discussed is his remarkable palette. Arnold had one of the most exuberant and original palettes in books. Certainly he looked long and hard at the great English watercolorists. But being his own person, he extended and developed. He is, without doubt, one of the very finest watercolorists who ever lived. There is a particular green. If God created one truly hideous color, it is this green, somewhere between bile and phlegm. Most artists wouldn’t touch it. But Arnold used this green all the time – and he made it beautiful, amusing, interesting. He made it work.

In the last year of his life, a year that was so very difficult, Arnold managed to produce three books. Two are very good books; The Turnaround Wind (Harper) will knock your socks off. When he saw the proofs of this book, he said, “Am I not lucky to get such good reproduction in the very last book of my career?” But he also said, “I can’t believe I did what I did.”

With Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel put friendship on the map. I know personally that he practiced what he preached — or rather didn’t preach. Arnold was the best friend anyone could ever have. He was loyal, loving, forgiving. He was a great support. He had many friends who wrote and illustrated books. When a friend had a new book just out, Arnold wouldn’t wait to be presented with a copy; he would rush out and buy the book — and read it. I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like that can be.

Arnold and I had only one falling-out, a serious one. It was so serious I thought I was going to have to leave town. It occurred when I implied, not too subtly, that perhaps his beloved cat, Orson, was a bit on the dim side. Arnold’s eyebrows hit the ceiling, and his twinkling eyes turned to slits of rage. I changed the subject.

Orson died some years ago. The last time I saw Arnold, I made a great show of playing with his new cat, Alfred. Arnold sat and watched this spectacle for some time and then leaned slowly forward and said in measured tones: “I . . . haven’t . . . forgotten . . . about Orson, you know.” I didn’t think he had. But old Orson has the last laugh. Like Edward Lear’s Foss, Orson has been immortalized. Arnold put him in several fine drawings and charming, wonderful poems.

Arnold asked me to thank Howard Wiener who took such good care of him at the end. And he asked me to say this. “Tell them,” he said, “that if they wish to do something nice for me, ask them to look at the books. Because that’s where they’ll find me.”

Gentleman to the end, he has left us a great gift.

 From the May/June 1988 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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