In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bravo for Frances

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I can't let your mention of the Frances books go by without taking a moment to wax rhapsodic about them: they are some of our absolute favorites, beloved by adults and kids alike. Russell and Lillian Hoban, the married couple who wrote and illustrated them, respectively, have a knack for depicting life for this family of badgers as both charming and realistic.

The book I remembered best from my own childhood, and the first one we bought to read to Eleanor, is A Baby Sister for Frances.

A Baby Sister for Frances

Perhaps the thing I love most about Frances is that she makes up little songs all the time, so each book is punctuated by these short rhymes that we provide tunes for while we're reading. A Baby Sister for Frances begins:

It was a quiet evening.
Father was reading his newspaper.
Mother was feeding Gloria, the new baby.
Frances was sitting under the kitchen sink.
She was singing a little song:

Plinketty, plinketty, plinketty, plink,
Here is the dishrag that's under the sink.
Here are the buckets and brushes and me,
Plinketty, plinketty, plinketty, plee.

She stopped the song and listened.
Nobody said anything.

Frances feels like her parents aren't paying enough attention to her because of Gloria. After a couple of disappointments (no raisins for the oatmeal!), she decides to run away. To under the dining-room table. Mother and Father play along, talking about how much they miss Frances as she sits listening and singing a lonely song and eating cookies, and eventually she decides to come back. (Though we got it before Isabel was in the picture, this is also a great book to give to a family expecting or just having welcomed a second child.)

A Birthday for Frances

A Birthday for Frances is also about sibling jealousy: it's Gloria's birthday, and Frances has a hard time ceding the spotlight to her sister. There's some wonderful dialogue in this one between Frances and her friend Albert about the uselessness of little sisters.

A Bargain for Frances

A Bargain for Frances is perhaps our current favorite, as it involves Frances's manipulative friend Thelma, who plays a mean trick on Frances over the purchase of a tea set. Frances thinks hard, and comes up with a really satisfying way to turn the tables on her. While the book ends happily, with friends playing together, the Hobans don't whitewash the ways kids can be mean to each other. My favorite moment in the matter-of-fact dialogue comes when Frances brings home the red plastic tea set Thelma has conned her into buying, and shows it to her sister Gloria: "'That is a very ugly tea set,' said Gloria. 'What's the matter with it?' said Frances. 'It's ugly,' said Gloria."

You mentioned Bread and Jam for Frances, which is another of our favorites, but needs a bit of a warning label if you have an impressionable child, as I do. In it, Frances only wants to eat bread and jam, and complains about all other food. Mother and Father deal with this by giving her bread and jam for every meal for a day and a half, at which point she gets tired of it and appreciates other kinds of food again (with the support of Albert, who is extremely satisfied with his own multi-part lunches). So the moral is a good one: try new food! In our house, however, what this translated to was Eleanor wanting to eat bread and jam all the time.

That leads me to the problem with Bedtime for Frances (the first Frances book, and the only one illustrated by Garth Williams). Like the others, this book has lovely moments in it: Frances has a hard time falling asleep, and one of the things she does is to make up a little alphabet song. However, she also gets out of bed multiple times, asks for and receives cake from her parents, imagines there's a tiger in her room, and is threatened with a spanking (the only time either Father or Mother comes off as punishing). We received this book recently in an awesome Easter package, and after reading it to Eleanor once (once!), she talked about there being a tiger in her room for probably two weeks. We've pulled it from the rotation.

There's one more Frances book, Best Friends for Frances. I've glanced at it in a bookstore, but never bought it, as the friend problem in it seems to involve Albert telling Frances he won't play with her anymore because she's a girl. Again, a concept I don't want to have to introduce Eleanor to just yet. Sadly, the time will come.

Love, Annie


  1. I'd forgotten about A Bargain for Frances until I just read your description of it. I must have been an impressionable child, just like Eleanor. I really, really wanted a tea set after reading that book.