Last Wednesday I began a discussion on wordless picture books and some of my tips on how to read them. It is such an interesting category of picture books and I am ecstatic to be able to share more excellent wordless picture books on Wednesdays for a while. I have quite a pile forming of wordless books to highlight, but today I want to start with one of my favorites from childhood.
A Boy, A Dog and A Frog is a simple, yet utterly delightful book. It is amazingly the first book ever published from now famous Mercer Mayer. It came out in 1967, seemingly setting off the last four decades of tremendous growth for wordless picture book creation. While it is not the first U.S. wordless picture book, it came early in the line-up and holds a prominent seat in the history of wordless pictures books, also remaining a favorite. Thus so, it is highly worth studying, discussing, and most importantly delighting in. Here is A Boy, A Dog and A Frog by Mercer Mayer, 1967.
The book opens with a small vignette of a boy and a dog walking towards the page turn. The boy is carrying a bucket and a net, while also wearing droopy waders (I believe this is the appropriate fishing term.) On the first full spread we see the boy and dog trekking near a river and then spying a very handsome frog minding his own business on a lily pad. We are essentially two pages in and the whole stage is set.
Attempts are made to capture the frog, but failure follows. Three increasingly passionate, and very humorous, attempts lead to frustration and despair for the boy and dog. Finally, they walk off with an obviously angry retort directed at the frog. The boy and the dog stomp away with the frog barely visible sitting on a rock. Alone.
And then the frog, who is really the star all along, feels truly alone. He traipses after the boy and the dog, all the way to the boy’s house and into the bathroom where he finds the boy and the dog washing off the day’s struggle. It is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
There is so much amazing storytelling going on here. The perspective shift from the boy and dog to the frog is surprising and yet so rewarding. The three characters are so fully themselves, I just laugh at them every time. The boy is determined and focused, yet clumsy in his childish actions. The dog is along for the fun, scratching himself mindlessly, but still doing his faithful companion job well. And the frog, he is calm and aloof, hopping spots as needed.
But the most powerful thing to me in this book is the expressions. Mercer Mayer’s style evolves quite a bit from this book, even in the following five books in this series. But his signature drawing style is still evident, and even more so his stellar composition and expressive faces. So much emotion spews from that tiny frog face. I honestly don’t know how Mayer did it. I stare and stare at that frog, knowing the simple lines that form him; and yet, he is a tiny frog convincing me to feel all sorts of depression, curiosity, and delight along with him. Details like the boy and frog facing off during the failed attempts put me in awe. Again, simple lines making so much chemistry. This is an artist at work.
So what is it about this wordless picture book that makes it a worthy forefather to the category? And what made it so appealing that it remains in print, has had multiple sequels and even film spin-offs, and laid the mind-shattering groundwork for Mercer Mayer’s 300+ book career?
First off, the story is incredibly simple if put into words; but explodes into all kinds of emotional, physical, and psychological scenes when played out on the page. It’s so crucial to have more to the story than what words can tell.
Second, the pacing is fantastic. Every page turn comes at a crucial, must-see moment. The net is poised in the air. The characters are face-to-face, unblinking. The frog sits alone, and doesn’t look happy about it. Every page leaves you wanting to know “what’s next?!”
Third, all of the characters win. The title clues us in from the start that there are three important characters in this story. And we all know from life that threesomes rarely go smoothly. But here, there are wins and losses on both sides until they realize that life would be better all in the same, figurative, boat. It is a heartwarming narrative that is surprisingly underdone.
Lastly, because I could dissect this for hours, the art matches the simple story in medium without losing its skilled, and lovely beauty. The compositions are excellent with much white space when needed, sparse background with only enough to set the stage, and expertly placed action to tell your eyes where to rest. This is masterful. The whole thing is drawn in pencil. The ink is almost brown in tone, which I’m not sure if that is from reproduction of the art or the intended color. But there is detail, texture, shading and light – all done with pencil. It is no real wonder that this served as the canon fire for Mayer’s illustration career. This little book packs a charming and yet powerful punch.
I hope you love these three characters as much as I do. I certainly am enjoying looking into and pondering the creation of wordless picture books. Please do add your discoveries to my list. I’m always open to more favorites!