When a rare book dealer called Adrianne Lobel last September with news he’d found three small books handcrafted by her father, legendary author and illustrator Arnold Lobel, she wasn’t immediately sure how interested she was in acquiring them. “I didn’t realize how important or how complete they were until they were in my hands,” she said.

Arnold Lobel, who died in 1987, had created the one-of-a-kind books as a Christmas gift for fellow author Crosby Bonsall, and her husband George. Written in the 1960s, they predate his Newbery and Caldecott Honor-winning I Can Read books about Frog and Toad by a decade—but have the same witty vibe. Once Adrianne saw the books, she had no doubt about what to do next: she took them to her father's longtime publisher, HarperCollins.

“The fuss that was made was sort of insane,” Adrianne recalled of the September 2008 meeting. “People came rushing in from home. It was as if I had uncovered the lost volumes of William Shakespeare.”

A “new” book by Arnold Lobel was pushed to the front burner. Working with Adrianne, HarperCollins editorial director Maria Modugno and art director Martha Rago decided to cull the best verses and illustrations from the three books into two volumes: The Frogs and Toads All Sang, which pubs this week, and a companion volume, Odd Owls and Stout Pigs, due in October.

Arnold Lobel. Photo: Ian Anderson.
Adrianne Lobel. Photo: Ken Howard.

“What I was looking at were the frogs and toads that later became the Frog and Toad. I was thrilled but I also had a moment of panic about how I was going to make it into a book that could be reproduced,” Modugno said. “But we had to do it so people could see where Frog and Toad began. In the handmade book, they are a couple. Not friends but man and woman. It was later, he turned them into friends. See how these things evolve?”

Arnold’s original pencil drawings were scanned, enlarged and reprinted on watercolor paper. Adrianne’s assignment was to color the drawings at four times their original size. A painter and a set designer by profession, she did as many as 20 different versions of each illustration. “It was nervous-making for me,” she admits. “If you’re designing a great big drop for the New York City Ballet, you can smush something here, and get the lighting designer to help make it perfect. But it’s a little more daunting when the work is going to be published.”

Even though she’d been down the “what would my father say?” road repeatedly when she produced the musical, A Year with Frog and Toad, based on her father’s beloved characters, she couldn’t help but continually think about his methods as she worked. “I am a plein air painter so in very much the same way I feel Cezanne or Van Gogh watching over my shoulder when I do that, I felt my father’s presence when I was working on this. He was right there with the watercolor brushes.”

An interior image from
The Frogs and Toads All Sang.

Modugno, who said she was thrilled at the chance to edit a master, even by proxy, loved the result. “It’s a project that could not have been done in an authentic way without Adrianne.”

For Adrianne, the collaboration reminded her of how much she loved working on books. In 1977, right after graduating from Yale University School of Drama, she published a picture book, and did illustrations for a chapter book, before her set design career took off. Now a mother herself to Ruby, 7, she finds the travel that theater requires has less appeal, and that she’s not nearly intimidated as she once was about working in the shadow of two talented parents (Adrianne’s mother, Anita, is a master in her own right). “Conceptually, illustrating a book is very similar to how I approach set design for a play or a ballet,” she said. “There is a story and you must figure out which moments to take out to illuminate. Get the word out, okay? I would love to do more.”

Adrianne Lobel describes how her father’s handmade books were brought to her attention, and how she gave them fresh life, in this YouTube video.