This evening I went to buy Russell Hoban’s Frances books for my boyfriend’s three-year-old niece. Montreal has very few non-secondhand English bookstores, so after checking at one store, I was forced to go to Chapters. Fewer places make me grumpier to shop in, and this time was no exception. For one thing, it is absurdly difficult to find anything. The children’s books are randomly grouped under names like “New Readers 3-5” and “Young Readers 6-8” – but infuriatingly, the shelves aren’t placed in order of age. These are interspersed with other sections with titles such as “Classics”, “Bestsellers” or “Staff Picks” (what’s wrong with the alphabet, people?). There’s so much junk on display – DVDs, Dora crap, Baby Einstein box sets – that it’s hard to pinpoint the actual books.
Although the shiny white Mac console informed me that three Frances books were in stock, I had to get an employee to help me locate them. And then it turned out that they didn’t have the original, hardback versions. Instead, they were flimsy paperback editions, part of a series called “I Can Read!” which, in addition to the story, contain activities and exercices to help parents help their kids identify vocabulary words. The books are colour-coded into reading skill levels. As I flipped through Bread and Jam for Frances, I realized something else. The text was different. I remember these books almost verbatim from checking them out of the library over and over again as a kid. The publishing company had removed words that were deemed too hard for Level 2, like “Thermos” and “pickle”. Now, why would anyone abridge a picture book? And how is “pickle” a harder word than “chicken”? And why would a little kid want to read something that looks and smells like a textbook?
I didn’t buy the books, since no kid should have anything less than the full Frances experience. Frances is a badger – which is never mentioned in the stories, but you know from Lillian Hoban’s sweet illustrations – living with her parents and her little sister Gloria, whom she treats with equal amounts disdain, resentment and grudging loyalty. Her parents are the epitome of calm, wise parenthood, which is a good thing because Frances is a tough kid: impetuous (she runs away from home to live under the dining room table), stubborn (at one point she refuses to eat anything but bread and jam), and contrarian (for Gloria’s birthday party, she draws place cards with “three-legged cats and caterpillars with ugly hats”). I loved Frances, loved her imaginary friend Alice, loved the songs she made up, and how imperfect and funny and and real she was.
And maybe all of you in Blogland will experience the same flood of memories that coursed through me as I browsed the books: Frances tricking Thelma into trading back her pink plastic tea set for a blue china one… Frances buying a Chompo bar and four gumballs for Gloria’s birthday, and not quite making it home with the gumballs… Frances turning up her nose at her mother’s breaded veal cutlets (I grew up in an Asian household and had no idea what these might be) and watching Albert chow down on a cream-cheese-cucumber-and-tomato on rye at school… What’s not to love?
Reading Age: 3-5
Rating: A, except for the annoying “I Can Read!” format
PS: After giving up on Frances, it took me forever to pick a present for said niece. I almost bought Angelina Ballerina, but then decided I couldn’t be held responsible for such a gendered reading choice. The Olivia books she has already. I anguished over Curious George (colonialism!) and Beatrix Potter (right-wing libertarianism!), and finally ended up buying Little Pea (based on Polly’s review) and Robert Munsch’s classic The Paperbag Princess. Whew.
Edit: D’oh! She already had The Paperbag Princess. Polly thinks it’s a book that was really written for grown-ups, not children. (Remember, after rescuing the Prince, who treats her haughtily, she calls him a bum and walks away, so “they didn’t get married after all.”) What do you think?