American artist Mercer Mayer is often described as the father of the wordless picturebook. This is because he was one of the first illustrators to popularise this format, and his funny and perceptive A Boy, A Dog and A Frog series is still in print today.
A Boy, A Dog and A Frog was Mayer’s debut title and it launched his career as a children’s book illustrator. Five other titles followed: Frog, Where Are You? (1969), A Boy, a Dog, a Frog and a Friend (1971), Frog on His Own (1973), Frog Goes To Dinner (1974) and One Frog Too Many (1975). Rather than an additional title, Four Frogs in a Box (1976) was a collection of the first four Frog mini books in a box set.
A Boy, A Dog and A Frog is modest. It’s small in format, easy for a young child to hold, with delicate line drawings that are devoid of colour. The story is straightforward – a boy and a dog head off to the river to catch a frog, but the wily creature cleverly escapes their attentions. However, this simple tale is actually quite subtle. For instance, is being left in peace what Frog really wants, or is the lure of two new playmates greater?
The strength of the book lies in the quality of its drawing. Right from the first illustration there is a cheerful sense of purpose and companionship. The boy, with a bucket swinging from his hand and a fishing net resting jauntily on his shoulder, heads out for his fishing adventure, accompanied by his faithful hound. Both characters are looking directly ahead with one foot raised, indicating that they are friends and in sync with each other’s plans. They quickly spot a frog, which they run to catch, but a log trips them up and they tumble into the water alongside the somewhat disgruntled amphibian. A game of cat and mouse – or boy and frog – ensues and, after several splashy mishaps, a weary boy and dog turn for home.
It is at this point that Mayer alters the trajectory of the story and engages the reader’s compassion for Frog. With a few deft strokes depicting increasingly droopy eyelids and downturned mouth, the artist shows the creature experiencing a range of emotions in quick succession, from annoyance to despondency to forlorn sadness at his abandonment. Instead of mischievous fun, deeper concerns about isolation and loneliness creep into the tale, as Frog discovers what it means to be left without his pals – a feeling with which most young children can easily identify. Fortunately the sharp-witted Frog has an idea, and before long the three friends are reunited.
As well as masterly pacing and an ability to portray shifting moods, Mayer is adept at composition, often using comparative size and physical distance to indicate emotional distance, as when the boy and dog are shown large on the far left of a spread, and the forsaken frog is shown as a tiny, almost invisible, dot on the far right – suggesting ‘out of sight is out of mind’. Mayer also effectively draws the same scene from two viewpoints. For example, in one picture, we see the back of the boy in the water with the smug face of the frog facing out towards us, then in the following image we see the back of the frog with the boy facing out. It is as if the camera has spun round 180° and we can see the drama from two perspectives.
This is skilful storytelling, and it works on several levels, speaking to both adult and child and allowing the reader to see different characters’ points of view. It is also very witty. Mayer went on to publish over 300 books for children, illustrating both his own stories and those of other people. He is now probably best known as the author of the Little Critter and Little Monster series, but his A Boy, A Dog and A Frog is worthy of a special place in history as a defining example of what the wordless book format can achieve.