Bread and Jam for Frances written by Russell Hoban and illsutrated by Lillian Hoban, RL 2

I know that everyone has read at least one of the Frances books by Russell Hoban - Bedtime for Frances, Bread and Jam for FrancesA Baby Sister for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, Best Friends for Frances,  A Bargain for Frances and Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs, which is excellent and sadly out of print. But have you read them all and have you read them often? If you are the parent of boys, do not hesitate to read these books to your sons, despite the fact that they are populated largely with girl characters. The themes and stories are so universal, so completely engrossing (and, you have to admit it, even a girl badger is pretty tough) that boys will not mind. I was prompted to write about these books because, while I have read them all to my three children, I rarely read them when I do story time at the bookstore because they are a bit long. However, I had four older girls in the audience the other day and it was the birthday of the little sister of one of the them so I decided to read A Birthday for Frances, which is not about Frances' birthday but her problems coping with the fact that it is her little sister Gloria's birthday. As Frances comments, while singing "Happy Thursday" to her invisible friend Alice who does not have a birthday, "Your birthday is always the one that is not now." That is SO true! As I read, the girls inched closer to me and were practically in my lap by the time the book ended, they were so riveted by the story. And I was riveted as well, especially when Frances gave that CHOMPO bar an extra squeeze.

Right there are the two things that I love and respect most about Hoban's Frances books as and adult and as a child having these books read to me - the drama and the food. Hoban has this amazing ability to present the complexities of childhood in the most straightforward, simple ways while at the same time offering a resolution that allows Frances to solve the problem without BEING a problem. So many kid's books, especially ones that want to teach a lesson, frame typical childhood behavior as problematic which then reduces the resolution of the situation to right and wrong and the plot becomes pedantic and dull. In Hoban's books Frances is allowed to right the wrong and reconcile negative feelings in a way that is both realistic and organic, giving the reader/listener the sense that children do have power. Hoban also has a beautiful way of keeping Frances' parents in the story, offering a gentle, subtle, guiding hand for Frances, whether it is to support her in her decision to run away, eat only bread and jam or decide not to give her sister a birthday gift. Somehow, their hands-off parenting effects a bit of reverse psychology and Frances ends up doing the right thing in the end - her own way and on her own schedule. I think that is what I love most about Mother and Father Badger now that I am a parent of three - I can really appreciate their patience, trust and willingness to step back and let their child work things out on her own. And she always does. As Hoban says of Frances' parents in an a interview with Sally Lodge at Publisher's Weekly celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Frances books, "The feeling that runs through all these books that problems can be resolved through that kind of loving attention is important. I think that is a reason that these books have received widespread approval from both readers and professionals." Tamar Mays, senior editor of HarperCollins Children's Book and editor of the Frances anniversary collection says in the same article, "Like any child, Frances pushes boundaries and can be very stubborn, but her mother and father are so lovingly drawn and always have the perfect response. The books impart a wonderful sense of their  kindness." 

And then there is the food! I'll admit it, I can be a bit food obsessed and there have been many a time when I have gotten about four books into story time and realized that they all have food themes. I'm not sure why this is. My grandmother was and my aunt continues to be an adventurous, generous cook and I definitely inherited that gene. Also, I was raised in a home where we were not allowed to have sugary cereals, candy or fast food and perhaps this absence generated a bit of obsessive thinking on my part as well. Either way, all the the books except for the first, Bedtime for Frances, have some kind of food, even if it is just a few balls of bubble gum, as part of the story. And songs! Frances is fabulous at making up her own songs that express her feelings. Hoban believes that these account for "a great deal of the books' popularity." In A Baby Sister for Frances, Frances is having a hard time coping with the changes that a new baby has brought to her family. Deciding to run away from home, she first asks what time dinner will be at. When Mother tells her half past six, she replies, "Then I will have plenty of time to run away after dinner." Frances packs a box of prunes and "five chocolate sandwich cookies" in her knapsack as she prepares to run away. When everything is resolved and Frances tells father that she is on her way home, Mother says, "That is good news indeed, I think I'll bake a cake." As Frances watches her mother bake, she notes that it it's "too bad that Gloria's too little to have some, but when she's a big girl like me, she can have chocolate cake too." Mother answers, "Oh yes, you may be sure that there will always be plenty of chocolate cake around here." The End. 

Someone is always talking about food in these books! There is Albert in  Best Friends for Frances, describing the lunch he has packed to take with him on his "wandering day" which consists of "four or five sandwiches and some apples and bananas and two packages of cupcakes." In A Birthday for Frances, there is the Chompo bar and four balls of bubble gum that Frances uses up two weeks' worth of allowances, "a nickel and two pennies and a nickel and two pennies," to buy Gloria a birthday present that she will surely love. As Frances and her father walk home from the store, she considers the appropriateness of her gift and absentmindedly eats all four of the gum balls while intermittently squeezing the candy bar. A Bargain for Frances centers around a tea set and, where there are no delicious lunches or dinners described, Thelma and Frances to find themselves at the candy store buying gum and Life Savers after some tense negotiations that threaten to end their friendship.

And, of course, there is Bread and Jam for Frances in which some truly delicious meals are consumed. The spaghetti and meatballs would have broken me of my bread and jam streak too, and I can completely relate to Frances when she ends her streak at that meal. And, who can forget the lunch that she has the next day at school and the loving way in which Hoban presents it. After putting a paper doily and a tiny vase with a violet in it on her desk, Frances tells Albert that she has brought a "thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup, and a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread. I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with." Albert replies, "That's a good lunch," to which Frances answers, "I think it's nice that there are all different kinds of lunches and breakfasts and dinners and snacks. I think eating is nice." So do I.

And, like Albert, Frances takes a bit out of everything so that they "come out even."

One thing about the Frances books that I did not notice right away is that Hoban's first book, Bedtime for Frances, was illustrated by Garth Williams while the rest of the books in the series were very ably illustrated by Hoban's wife at the time, Lillian Hoban. The differences are noticeable when compared side by side, and, as much as I adore Garth Williams, who's idea it was to make Frances and her family badgers, I think that Lillian Hoban really made these characters her own. Simply illustrated, there are details that catch your eye after many readings. The hunk of parmesan cheese and the metal grater in  Bread and Jam for Frances caught my adult eye, although as a kid who grew up with that shiny green paper container of grated cheese I had no idea what it was. The little baskets of candy favors in A Birthday for Frances as well as the gifts Gloria received always caught my eye as a kid also. Hoban definitely has a way with toys in these books. Those of you who remember these books from your childhoods may notice one other change that riled me up a bit when I was buying these books for my kids. The original Frances books were black and white with washes of pale green and pink. These days,  you cannot buy these books in their non-colorized form. For me, that meant that my beloved CHOMPO bar was no longer sheathed in a mysterious pink and green wrapper, but a boring brown one. Oh well. And, I am not thrilled with the funky Omega-shaped symbol that has been added behind every cover image, unifying these books as if they needed it. Did you ever notice that the title of every book begins with a "B" word? I didn't, but Hoban was asked about this and said that he was superstitious so, when the first book was well received he stuck with the theme. But, these books are still in print and that is what matters most to me.

While he has spent most of his career as an adult novelist, Hoban also wrote many other books for children early in his career. Although the book Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is out of print, Jim Henson made it into a tv movie in 1977 and the slightly edited DVD can be found around the internet for purchase. I have very fond memories of this movie being aired every December for most of my childhood, even thought the story itself is pretty darn sad.

Russell Hoban wrote one novel for children, The Mouse and His Child, which Lilllian Hoban also provided the pictures for. While I have not read it, I own two copies of the original and one of the updated version with pictures by the marvelous David Small. My husband read it out loud to my daughter when she was four or five and they were both very entranced, especially by the idea of "The Last Visible Dog." Instead of trying to describe it myself, I will share this summary from The Head of Orpheus, a Russell Hoban Reference Page:

The Caws of Art are performing an experimental play called The Last Visible Dog, written by C. Serpentina, inspired by the image on the label of Bonzo Dog Food cans. The dog on the label is holding a can of dog food, on the label of which there is a smaller dog, holding a smaller can on which there is an even smaller dog, and on and on as far as the eye can see. The recurring concept of "The Last Visible Dog" becomes an eloquent metaphor for patience, persistence and determination, as the mouse and his child find that in order to realize their dreams of domestic contentment they must remain focused on a goal that seems further away than the eye can see, and travel farther than they ever dreamed.

For all its elegant simplicity, The Mouse and His Child is a surprisingly moving and thought-provoking story, encompassing powerful themes of redemption and transformation. Frequently disturbing due to its unflinching depiction of life's cruelty (I don't think I've ever read a children's book in which so many characters die suddenly), it is nevertheless an ultimately uplifting triumph of the--er, windup animal spirit.

In 1977, the book was made into an animated movie, The Mouse and His Child: The Movie, with a very impressive voice cast. 

One of Hoban's older books, The Sorely Trying Day, has been brought back into print by the New York Review of Books. I have had the pleasure of reading - and relating to - this book about four squabbling children and their mother, who is worn out by them at the end of the day when their father gets home. With a Victorian Era setting and Hoban's usual keen eye for the realities of life, it is a great read.

These are two books from my childhood that I have recovered and am thrilled to have back on my shelves. Both out of print, Harvey's Hideout and Charley the Tramp left deep impressions on me.

And, finally, one last book from Hoban, who, at the age of 86 says he is working on one more picture book, this time with Quentin Blake. The Sea Thing Child, illustrated by Patrick Benson, is a little bit haunting but also enchanting.

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