A Bargain For Frances: Being Careful and Being Friends

There are some books that I save to read to my class at particular times (my stacks of holiday books come to mind) or for a particular occasion (Officer Buckle and Gloria always follows our discussion of class rules).  Then there are books that I have to read because they’re just … necessary.  This week I pulled A Bargain for Frances (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) off the shelf, in part because it seemed to connect to our school anti-bullying initiative, but more because it’s just a necessary childhood book in my mind.  It’s a book that could easily fall between the cracks because it doesn’t quite fit into any category.  The format isn’t quite like a typical picture book, and the “I Can Read” edition I have scares away some of my more sophisticated readers.  It hasn’t won any major awards (although it was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1970).  Yet every time I read it I’m struck by what a truly wise, warm, and funny story it is.

Cover of "A Bargain for Frances"

Cover of A Bargain for Frances

In A Bargain for Frances, the young badger Frances (also featured in Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances) is going to play with her friend Thelma.  Before she leaves, her mother warns her to “be careful.”  She reminds Frances of other times Thelma has manipulated things so that they go her way, pointing out that “when you play with Thelma you always get the worst of it.”  Frances reassures her mother and sets off for a tea party with her friend.  Frances tells Thelma that she is saving up for a tea set made of real china.  Yet somehow, by the end of the tea party, Thelma has convinced Frances to give her the $2.17 she has saved up in exchange for Thelma’s plastic tea set.  When Frances learns that Thelma tricked her, Frances comes up with a trick of her own to get her money back.

I’m still not sure if it was multiple readings of this story as a child that made it stick in my mind or if it was just the power of the story itself, but the details of this book come back to me incredibly clearly every time I reread it.  I have such a strong memory of the two tea sets – the real china one with pictures all in blue and the plastic one with red flowers – that they almost seem like something I wanted myself as a child (though I wasn’t really a “tea set” girl).  The single penny at the bottom of the sugar bowl that Frances uses to trick Thelma, the expressions on the two girls’ faces throughout … these little details are part of what make this simple story such a classic.

Yet when I read this book as an adult, I’m struck even more by the realism of the relationship between the girls.  Thelma’s careful persuasion of Frances could be studied by negotiators: she starts by talking up her own tea set, then disparages china tea sets (which are “no good” because they just break).  She explains that you can’t get china tea sets any more, and tells a cautionary tale about a girl who saved up for one and never ended up getting any tea set at all.  Finally, when Frances is eager to buy Thelma’s set, Thelma demurs, declaring she might have “changed her mind.”  It’s masterful (and pretty funny), but also feels so right in imitating the ways little girls interact with each other.  I always feel my stomach give a little lurch as I read it and watch Frances getting drawn in.  This year when I asked my students how they would feel if they were Frances, one student declared, “I would feel really uncomfortable and like I wanted to get out of there!”  My thoughts exactly.  Frances’s trick to get around the “no backsies” promise she gave Thelma is also both clever and believable, precisely the plan a bright little girl might come up with.

At the end of my read aloud of this book this week, one my students made an interesting observation.  “Her mom is hardly in this story at all,” he pointed out.  “She’s there at the beginning and then she doesn’t come back.”  It was an interesting point, and I asked the class if they thought Frances’s mom knew about Thelma’s tricks.  They all agreed that she seemed to know Frances should be careful around Thelma, but Frances didn’t actually tell her mother about the sneaky trading.  “Do you think she should have told her mom?” I asked.  “Oh, yes!” most of the class chorused (carefully repeating key points of our recent conversations about telling an adult if someone is bullying you).  As an adult, I’m torn.  On the one hand, I’d like to think my students would tell me about a situation like the one in the book.  When I was a child, I tended to be quick to look for adult assistance, and I probably would have voted with the majority in my class to advise Frances to tell her mother.  And yet … part of the charm of this story is the way these two girls experience this conflict and change because of it.  When Thelma realizes she’s been tricked, she tells Frances she’ll have to “be careful” when she’s playing with her.  Frances asks her, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”  I can’t help feeling that an adult mediator might have helped Frances to get back the tea set, but might not have helped her get to that understanding of friendships, that most powerful of lessons from this book. A recent post from the “Motherlode” blog at the New York Times echoes the importance of this lesson, calling it a Secret of Adulthood.  I’m also reminded of Michael Thompson’s excellent book about children’s relationships, Best Friends, Worst Enemies, in which he writes about the importance of healthy conflict for children’s social development.

Good conflict can create good relationships … and it certainly creates memorable literature.  If this book was part of your childhood, it’s certainly worth rereading and sharing with the children in your life.  Happy reading!

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