Monday, December 26, 2011

Frances Books

I have had people ask me why I refer to my daughters as Frances and Gloria on my blog.  This is especially confusing to people who know my children in real life, as these are not their real names.  So I had pulled the Frances books by Russell Hoban to create a blog post on these beloved books, but it was far down on the pile of potential bog posts.  After all, I am still posting  on Cybils titles.  Then I heard that Russell Hoban (the author of the Frances books) had died, and this post moved up.  Not only did he write these books, but he wrote some of my other favorites, too - The Mouse and His Child, Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, and one of my particular favorites,  Harvey's Hideout

But I'm here to celebrate the Frances books in particular.  There are six books about Frances, the badger, published between 1960 and 1970.  There is also a companion books of Frances' "songs" called Egg Thoughts and other Frances Songs (1972).  These books continue to resonate with children today.  As I gathered information to write this post, the pile of books kept moving as my girls took them off to their room to read.  I think there are several things about these stories that are universal and makes the books still enjoyable today.  The delicious food, the poetic songs Frances creates and most of all the comforting dynamic are all strong themes throughout the series.

The first book Hoban wrote about Frances was Bedtime for Frances (1960).  This book is about the universal problem for preschoolers - falling asleep.  Frances can't fall asleep, and she keeps coming out to pester her parents.  In this first book, Frances is already exhibiting some of her constant personality traits.  She insists on having all her stuffed animals, a tricycle and a sled piled up next to her bed.  She sings herself an alphabet song to soothe herself "A is for apple pie/B is for bear/C is for crocodile, combing his hair."  And like any other child in this situation, her imagination runs wild - a crack on the ceiling has spiders climbing out of it, a robe hanging over a chair is a giant.  Through it all, her parents display admirable calm, restraint and patience.  That is, until Frances wakes up her father by standing next to his bed, staring at him very quietly (I'd be grumpy too!).  He tells Frances that everyone has a job, and that hers is to go to sleep.  If he doesn't go to work, he tells Frances, he will be out of a job.  "'And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?' 'I will be out of a job?' said Frances.  'No,' said Father. 'I will get a spanking?' said Frances.  'Right!' said Father.  'Good night!' said Frances, and she went back to her room."  Sometimes clear consequences do the trick, and their matter of fact way of handling even this situation is one of my favorite things about this series.  We read this book every couple of months when there are sleep problems in our household, and with all the Christmas excitement, it's time for a re-reading.

A Baby Sister for Frances (1964) is the next book chronologically.  And as is evident from the title, there is someone else sharing her parents' attention.  After some perceived slights (a dress isn't ironed, Frances is asked to be quiet), Frances decides to run away from home...under the dining room table.  While she sits and eats prunes, her parents mention aloud how much they miss Frances.  They particularly miss her songs, but they also note how sad Gloria is without her older sister.  Mother says "a girl looks up to an older sister.  You know that."  This is all said in their trademark gentle style.  Frances' parents never get too angry, but just deal with things as they come along.  Mother says later "Babies are very nice.  Goodness knows I like babies, but a baby is not a family."  Father chimes in "A family is everybody all together."  Frances does indeed return home to everyone's relief.  And the issue of change in the family is dealt with in a reassuring way.  Frances is still important to her parents and her place as older sister is defined.  This book is the one my particular Frances requests most often.  I'm not sure what she likes best about it, but I suspect it is not the prunes!

While there has been food sprinkled throughout the first two books, Hoban really ups the ante in Bread and Jam for Frances (1964).  Gloria is now a toddler, and Frances has decided that what she would prefer to eat at every meal is bread and jam.  So her mother, calmly and without a lot of fanfare, begins to serve Frances bread and jam exclusively.  Her friend Albert, making his first appearance, has a lunch that puts Frances' bread and jam to shame.  Indeed, the description of Albert's lunch takes up almost an entire page of text.  It is lovingly described, and you can feel Frances' envy growing as he relates the contents.  When he begins to eat, Frances watches as "He took a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk.  Then he sprinkledmore salt on the egg and went around again."  When Frances begins to cry in desperation after being served bread and jam again, she wails to her mother "How doyou know what I'll like if you won't even try me?"  All's well that ends well, though - the next day at lunch Frances unpacks an entire picnic basket of food, including a thermos of soup, a lobster-salad sandwich and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles, among other things. Yum!

Sadly, it isn't Frances' birthday in A Birthday for Frances (1968).  It's Gloria's birthday.  And that makes life a lot harder for Frances.  After all, it's very difficult to celebrate a sibling's birthday.  Frances feels guilty about not wantng to give Gloria a present, and finally decides to spend some of her allowance on Gloria.  It's the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it any easier to give up the candy she's purchased.  Once again, this book shows off some of the hallmarks of this series.  Her parents handle Frances' struggles with calm demeanor.  They affirm her feelings without much comment on them.  They love Frances no matter what, but encourage her to come to the right decision.  There are perfect moments in this book, such as when Frances is walking home from the candy store, she puts two of the four gumballs into her mouth and starts chewing "without noticing it".  Later, Father asks her "'Is there something in your mouth?' 'I think maybe there is bubble gum,' said Frances, 'but I don't remember how it got there.'"  Or when Frances insists on singing Happy Birthday to Gloria again, since she didn't really mean it the first time.  Gloria is more of a little sister in this volume.  She has her own friend, but clearly adores Frances.  This is a popular choice in our house - after all, it is hard to celebrate a birthday that isn't yours.

Gloria really comes into her own in Best Friends for Frances (1969).  Albert, who is Frances' best friend, doesn't want to play with Frances, and would rather do stuff alone or with other boys.  He takes an impressive picnic lunch with him on his wanderings, the first discussion of food in this one.  Frances goes home feeling dejected, and it is Gloria who steps in.  She asks Frances if she can be her friend.  She and Frances plan their own outing, complete with a sign that reads "BEST FRIENDS OUTING NO BOYS".  So of course Albert wants to come.  He is especially intrigued by the picnic hamper, which is so laden with food it requires a wagon.  I couldn't possibly quote the page and a half description of what's inside the hamper, but I will tell you that Frances ends that description with "And there are salt and pepper shakers and napkins and a checked tablecloth, which is the way girls do it."  It turns out that Gloria forms a bridge between Frances' hurt feelings and Albert so that they can become friends again.  And in turn, when Gloria feels left out, Albert and Frances come together to include Gloria.  It is particularly in this book that my Gloria reminds me of Hoban's Gloria.  She loves doing things with her sister, but is a little more rough and tumble than her sister (in the book, Gloria wants Albert to teach her to catch snakes).  She doesn't want to be left out, but wants to be included on her own terms.

Now we come to the last (but my favorite) of the Frances books, A Bargain for Frances (1970).  In this book, Frances has a new friend, Thelma (I suspect Hoban had a fondness for Albert and didn't want him to be the bad guy, but that's just a guess).  Frances' mother warns Frances to be careful and says "Because when you play with Thelma, you always get the worst of it."  But Frances blithely goes to Thelma's house where she announces she's saving her allowances for a real china tea set.  Thelma quietly schemes to get Frances to buy her cheap plastic set, and hurries off to buy the china set for herself.  When Frances discovers what Thelma has done, she manipulates Thelma right back, tricking her into taking back the tea set (and after Thelma had told Frances 'no backsies' too!).  It is a genius move, and shows some real spunk on Frances' part.  My girls are just beginning to experience other children trying to get what they want at all costs.  A Bargain for Frances has opened their eyes to the ways you can get your own back when you think the bargain wasn't made equally.  I'll always remember the description of the real china tea set, with paintings on each piece in blue.

I've waxed on and on about these books, but there's still more to be said.  I haven't even touched on Lillian Hoban and Garth Williams' illustrations, or Egg Thoughts and other Frances songs or the ubiquitious cardboard salt shakers, or the fact that all the titles start with a B, or...well, you get the idea.  These are classics, well worth visiting again and again.  Russell Hoban lives on in these stories.

Bedtime for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Garth Williams. Scholastic, 1960.
A Baby Sister for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1964, 1993.
Bread and Jam for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1964, 1993.
A Birthday for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1968, 1995.
Best Friends for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1969, 1994.
A Bargain for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  Harper & Row, 1970.

All books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library, except Bargain which I borrowed from Helena School District.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, was saddened to hear about Hoban's death because of my love of Frances. Bargain is probably my favorite, but my children loved Bread and Jam. Sigh. What great books. Thanks for posting about them.