Wednesday 14 August 2019

Frances - the most real small child I've ever read

I remember almost no picture books from my childhood. I suppose this may be because they would have been library books for the most part. At home, I had a handful of Beatrix Potters which I valued more for their satisfying size than for their stories.

The one story I could remember as an adult was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. Why this particular book stuck with me more than all the others I must have had read to me I have no idea. Of course, it is a very fine book, so perhaps my pre-reading self had some literary discrimination. All I know is that this was a book that if I saw it on the library shelves, I would immediately add it to my pile. That copy must have spent more time in our house than it did at the library.

This was the book that I sought out when I had my children. I bought Bread and Jam when my eldest daughter was two and eventually we had most of the Frances books, though the only other one that was familiar to me was A Baby Sister for Frances. We also had a rather delightful tape of Glynis Johns reading the stories. Oh I wish I had that tape still. She was odd and real and just perfect.

Why did Frances appeal so much? What was it about these stories that caught me? Frances, though she is, of course, a badger, is very much an ordinary child. Nothing much happens. In Bread and Jam Frances is fussy about her food so Mother gives her bread and jam for every meal until Frances realises that that’s dull and there are other foods she likes. Put so plainly is sounds almost Victorian – Frances acts up and learns a lesson. But it’s not like that at all. All the characters bounce off the page with life. We know exactly how Frances feels – and she feels so much and so strongly – and we understand it. She is one of the most real small children I’ve ever read. And you can’t help but love her rhymes:

The language of these books has seeped into our family vocabulary. We know what we’re referring to when we talk about things ‘coming out even’. When ever opportunity arises, I will say ‘You can be sure there will always be plenty of chocolate cake around here.’

It’s the detail I love. When Frances watches her friend Albert eat his extensive packed lunch, we get every detail of his ritual as he cracks his hard-boiled egg, peels it, salts it, bites it, then moves on to take a bite of his sandwich and his pickle and a drink of milk. You can feel Frances's envy at every bite. And at the end, her own joy in doing the same with her new non-bread-and-jam lunch, made even more special by the inclusion of a doily and a tiny vase of violets. 

This is very wordy compare to most modern picture books, and I know there are versions out there where the text has been cut, but I believe every word of this is necessary and every word is a great pleasure. For someone who loves children’s books so, I found reading to my kids something of a chore and in particular I disliked wordy picture books. Maybe I could feel the children getting restive and wanting to see the picture on the next page. I never found that with Frances though. I would willingly start again the moment I’d reached the end. Pure quality? Or because it was so embedded in my memory that the book felt like all the very best things about books and childhood and reading aloud.

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