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October 6, 2011

Our Best Book from the Library Haul: Russell Hoban's A Birthday for Frances

It’s probably only been a month since we became acquainted with Russell Hoban’s Frances books, but I feel like she’s been a part of our lives forever. She was fast beloved, and my only complaint is that some of her books are a little bit long, which is a problem, you see, because I never end up reading one less than three times in a row. Harriet’s attention rarely wanders, however, and I think we’ve found our favourite Frances yet with A Birthday for Frances. The story of an older sister (who just happens to be a badger) upset with the attention being paid to little sister Gloria who’s on the verge of turning two. I love the Frances books because Frances really battles her demons, her worst self, and she shows that doing the right thing is so hard (and more over, she doesn’t even always do the right thing). For a badger, she’s one of the most realistically drawn, complex characters I’ve ever encountered in a picture book.

Love this book also for the marvelous prose as Frances sets the scene for an imaginary frend called Alice:  “That is how it is, Alice,” said Frances. “Your birthday is always the one that is not now.” Or when she’s reluctantly drawn into making place cards for Gloria’s birthday table, and sings: “A rainbow and a happy tree/ Are not for Alice or for me./ I will draw three-legged cats./ And caterpillars with ugly hats.”

I love the way Hoban acknowledges the dark side of a child’s emotional life, reflecting and validating feelings of jealousy and anger. And how the story shows its readers how to work through these feelings, but is also resolved in a way most marvelously un-saccharine.

*Turns out Russell Hoban is a sci-fi, fantasy novelist. Though there is no sign of this in the Frances books, it’s not all that surprising either.

7 thoughts on “Our Best Book from the Library Haul: Russell Hoban's A Birthday for Frances”

  1. melanie says:

    I thought Frances was a badger. But the real point is that we have A Sister for Frances in our collection and it gets a lot of reading time around here. There is a situation in the book where Frances’s mother, dealing with baby Gloria has not ironed Frances’s blue dress (so she has to wear the yellow one) AND she puts bananas on the porridge because she hasn’t been to the store yet to buy more raisins (“Why are there bananas on the porridge? Did you forget that I like raisins?”) Anyway – Frances’ response to all of this is: “Well, things aren’t very good around here anymore” and let me tell you Moira pulls that line out often for many situations. I think Moira can relate to Frances in this book a little too much because, apparently, things aren’t very good around here anymore.

  2. patricia says:

    Kerry, did you ever see the movie ‘Turtle Diary’ with Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley? I saw it in the mid-80s and was mesmerized by the story. The movie is based on the novel written by, yes, Russell Hoban, and the screenplay is written by Harold Pinter, no less. The two main characters in the film/novel are obsessed with these sea turtles at the London Zoo. The man works in a bookshop, and the woman is a popular children’s author/illustrator. What’s not to love about that? For some odd reason it was that movie that got me thinking I’d like to become a picture book author/illustrator. It’s not a super cheerful movie or novel, but definitely work exploring.

  3. Sara says:

    I always loved Frances. When you said she was a hedgehog, Kerry, I had to stop and think why I didn’t remember that. Realised she was never any particular animal to me – she was just Frances. But I think Patricia is right – badger.
    There’s a good audio collection of Frances stories – I do believe in reading to your little ones, just think that once in awhile you’re entitled to do it without moving your lips.
    And how funny to think of Turtle Diary inspiring a career choice. I’ve read a lot of Hoban (reviewed a few of his later novels) but it’s Riddley Walker that I love above all else. I saw him read from Medusa Frequency years ago and remember him saying that when he was writing he liked to listen to radio in languages he didn’t understand. Fascinating mind. His daughter is now writing YA fiction too.

  4. Sara says:

    Sorry, when I said Patricia I meant, of course, Melanie. I’ve only had half a cup of my morning chai and my brain and fingers are not yet quite in concert.

  5. Kerry says:

    Frances is such a badger, thank you very much. My brain has not been in concert with much these last few days. And I like Frances, because Hoban acknowledges that often things really AREN’T very good. I imagine it’s good for Moira to know that other badgers have been through what she’s experiencing. And yes, now must check out Turtle Diary. I think you’d mentioned it at our book club, Patricia. And that coupled it being authored by Frances’ creator makes it a must-see/must-read now.

  6. Panic says:

    YES! The Frances books (and my Mom reading them of course) kept me company when I had measles. I love those books a lot.

  7. melanie says:

    Now I need to check out Turtle Diary too – Hoban/Pinter sounds like quite the team.

    And Sara, thanks for the heads-up on the audio collection of Frances. I think listening to stories is great for kids. Sometimes before bed I will make Moira sit down and listen to a story so she calms down enough to actually get into bed and listen to her nighttime stories. And sometimes they are just a nice break for me.

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