Russell Hoban's A Bargain for Frances
illustrated by Lillian Hoban
Book review by Tamara Splingaerd
Classic Clever Tale of Friendship, Honesty and Virtue
If you’re not familiar with the Frances series I’d like to introduce you to one of my top “vintage picks”. In other words, a treasured part of my own childhood collection that I rely on heavily when reading to my own girls.
Published in 1970 by Harper & Row, A Bargain for Frances is a Level 2 “I Can Read” book with an astounding 62 pages of cautionary tale for badgers (little girls and boys too). The gentle pencil-sketch style illustrations are charmingly expressive but the real genius is in the text. Who knew it could be so dangerous to attend a tea party?
Frances is off to play with her friend Thelma, who clearly has some unchecked sociopathic tendencies (like most kids under the age of 26). Mother warns Frances to be careful and to remember what happened the last time:
“Which time was that?” said Frances.
“That was the time you played catch with Thelma’s new boomerang,” said Mother. “Thelma did all the throwing, and you came home with lumps on your head.”
“I remember that time now,” said Frances.
Then there’s the time last winter when Thelma wanted to go skating and told Frances to try the ice first:
“Who came home wet?” said Mother. “You or Thelma?”
“I came home wet,” said Frances.
But Frances assures her mother that there’s no need for concern because she and Thelma aren’t playing with boomerangs or ice skating, they’re having a tea party. What could possibly go wrong?
No lumps or bumps, no falling through ice. This time it’s purely white-collar crime. Tricky Thelma deceitfully swindles Frances out of the allowance she’s been saving for a new china tea set, then proceeds to buy one for herself the very next day.
But in this story, naivety and goodwill shall not be mistaken for stupidity. Frances knows she’s been taken but remains externally calm in a way that young children are seen only in books.
Which is fine with me, I like setting the bar high. Frances’ singsong poems (her inner monologue which frequents the entire series) allow the reader (your emerging reader!) to experience her frustration.
…Mother told me to be careful,
But Thelma better be bewareful
Frances turns the tables on Thelma, who reproachfully declares to Frances, “Well, from now on I will have to be careful when I play with you.”
“Being careful is not as much fun as being friends,” replies wise Frances. “Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?”
In the end, Thelma learns something too.
A Bargain for Frances - book review
Russell and Lillian Hoban have developed distinct characters, conflict and humor for a Level 2 reader, which even 40 years later remains a rare achievement. A Bargain for Frances is a guide to happy friendships plus great reading practice for the K-2 crowd. All sweetly packaged in a clever and frequently hilarious story that girls in particular will treasure even when they’re older. I can’t imagine my collection, or my childhood, without it.
Others in the series:
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