Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hidden Classic #3: Bedtime for Frances

I am old enough to remember vinyl records, and I once owned many. Among my favorites were a collection of 45 RPM recordings that came with matching paperback books, so you could either read along or listen to them at bedtime, just like the book & CD kits of today. The ones that my brothers and I listened to and read over and over again, our favorites, were the Frances stories, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated first by the incomparable Garth Williams and then by Hoban's first wife, Lillian.

Frances is a temperamental badger child, whose escapades are in part based on the experiences of the four Hoban children, Phoebe, Brom, Esmé, Julia, and their friends. Her stories are Bread and Jam for Frances, A Baby Sister for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, Best Friends for Frances, Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs, and the original (my favorite), Bedtime for Frances. The events of the story will be familiar to children and to their parents: first, she wants a glass of milk, then a piggyback ride, then her teddy bear and doll, then extra kisses. Even after all of that, sleep eludes her, so she makes up a little song to sing to herself (her songs are the best parts of the books). But there is a tiger in her song, which makes her wonder if there is a tiger in her bedroom....or maybe a giant....or maybe spiders will come out of the crack in the ceiling....or maybe a ghost is moving the curtains.....

Throughout it all, Frances is charming and ingenious and unique, yet completely believable. And her parents' initial patience and humor, followed eventually (and inevitably) by firmness then exasperation, will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever tried to get a young child to sleep. Hoban's words and Williams' drawings complement each other perfectly.

It wasn't until years later that I realized that Hoban was a local boy, born and raised in Lansdale, PA. Or that he also wrote novels for older children and adults, including the award-winning The Mouse and His Child. Or that he was also an illustrator himself. Williams, a writer-illustrator in his own right, has provided the artwork for many childhood classics, including The Rescuers series by Margery Sharpe, The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little (both by E.B. White), several stories by Margaret Wise Brown, numerous Golden Books, and all children's titles by George Selden (including A Cricket in Times Square). Interesting, but not necessary at all to the enjoyment of Frances and her very relatable adventures. They have never been out of print, and I hope they never will be. They are truly classics in every sense of the word.

Bedtime for Frances
written by Russell Hoban
illustrated by Garth Williams
published by HarperCollins, 1960
31 pages with illustrations
Recommended read-aloud ages: 3-8
Recommended read-alone ages: 6-8

Praise for Frances:

"An enchanting picture book with winsome illustrations and a text in which there is humor and a real sympathy for the maneuvering of the reluctantly retiring young. " ~ Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Here is the coziest, most beguiling bedtime story in many a day." ~ Kirkus Reviews
"Williams' drawings have become inseparable from how we think of those stories. In that respect... his work belongs in the same class as Sir John Tenniel’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland, or Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh." ~ Gordon Campbell in the introduction to Williams' The Rabbit's Wedding
"Anyone who has ever put a little one to bed will find this delightfully familiar, and the children themselves will enjoy the gentle humor and coziness of the story." ~ School Library Journal

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