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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Holiday Read Alouds, Part 2: Tales to Warm the Heart

Having taken my own advice about waiting until the perfect “tipping point” to introduce holiday books into the classroom, I now find myself (as I do almost every year) in a slight frenzy.  You see, the size of the stack of books I was hoping to share with my class before vacation doesn’t quite match up with the number of days we have left.  I suppose that’s not the worst problem in the world to have – it does flip the “countdown” feeling in my head to something positive – but I’m surprised by how important certain books feel to me, almost like I wouldn’t be ready for the holidays if I didn’t get a chance to read them.  I suppose the traditions we create within classrooms can become almost as strong and personal as the traditions we create within our families, those non-negotiable ceremonies that make the holidays so special.

Today I’ll focus on two books that I would consider my favorite “heartwarmers.”  I’ll make time later in the week for some books that are just pure fun.

1st edition

1st edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) – I must admit that I have an ulterior motive in reading this book to my class: it allows me to show the video of the Jim Henson adaptation of this story on the last day before break.  That movie remains one of my favorite childhood Christmas specials.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was as connected to the book as a child as I was to the movie, but I’ve rediscovered the book as an adult.  Essentially it is a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” with animal characters.  Emmet and his Ma are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts.  A Christmas Eve talent show seems to offer a perfect opportunity to use their musical talents to win some money and buy a “real, store-bought” gift for one another.  They secretly prepare to enter with different acts, but each finds that their act will require a sacrifice: Emmet will have to put a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a bass for his jug-band, and Ma will have to sell Emmet’s toolbox to get the fabric for her costume.  Will their sacrifices pay off in the end?  I learned after my first year of reading this story to children that it’s best to stop right before the talent show if you’re also going to show them the movie, creating some sense of suspense.  Children’s expectations for “happy endings” in stories like this are so strong that the debate is usually about which one of the characters will win the show, not whether they’ll win at all; the actual ending of the story is usually very surprising to them.  The Hobans are familiar to many children from the other books they wrote together, particularly A Bargain for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances, and the gentle style of the story and pictures in this book is

Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas

Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (Photo credit: ulalume)

similar to their other works.  I find the low-key, heartwarming tone of both the book and movie to be a nice counterbalance to the more frenetic pace of some holiday specials.  This book is sadly out of print, but you can find it in libraries or used book stores. It’s worth hunting down!  The Jim Henson special is available on DVD, and you can find extensive informationabout the making of the film on the Muppet wiki.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story (written by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Chris K. Soentpiet) – Cynthia Rylant is truly a remarkable author for many reasons, not least of which is her ability to write in such completely different genres.  Children who know her name from series such as Henry and Mudge or Cobble Street Cousins might be surprised to hear that she also wrote this lovely, touching picture book.  The story takes place in a poor village in Appalachia.  Many years ago, a rich man had a car accident in the hills and was well-cared for by the people who found him.  When he had healed, his caretakers refused to accept any money from him, and he left feeling that he owed a debt to the community.  Every year he rides through the towns in the hills on a train, throwing packages wrapped in silver paper to the children who run alongside.  A little boy named Frankie waits in the cold for the train, hoping every year for a toy doctor kit.  One year his package has a cowboy holster and warm socks; another year it contains a toy police car and mittens.  As an adult, he looks back on those precious packages and makes a decision about a debt of his own that he feels he owes.  The writing in this story is poetic in a subtle way, and I absolutely love the detailed illustrations.  There are some really interesting conversations to be had with children about what it means to owe someone a debt and how the gifts we give can affect others.  If you’re reading this aloud, prepare yourself for the last page, though – I always have to blink back a few tears on this one.

Now, a disclaimer.  This book is actually my runner up for Favorite Tearjerker.  My real Favorite Tearjerker is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (written by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch); however, since I can’t read that book (aloud or to myself) without actually bursting into tears, I have officially removed it from the list of read alouds so I do not scar my children emotionally.  I can usually make it through Silver Packages with just a lump in my throat, so it’s a safer choice.  Do yourself a favor and read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey … but if you’re anything like me, do it in a corner by yourself with a box of tissues nearby.

Happy reading and happy holidays!