Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban; illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1964)

 Bread and Jam for Frances is one of those books that I must have read as a kid - I have an old, old paperback copy of it - but it doesn't resonate like other books.  It just is, if you know what I mean.  The words and pictures exist in my head almost as if Frances and her family were neighbors growing up, and the story is on par with stories about my real neighbors.  I actually think that we may have had this as a read along record.  The language of the story sticking in my head, but neither in my own voice or in my grandmother's voice (I don't remember my mom ever reading to us, although I suppose she did; I remember my dad reading to us on occasion, usually at night).  That's why it feels so much like poetry or storytelling - because someone on a record was reading it aloud thirty five years ago.

I do know I've re-read this since then, as a children's librarian, although never aloud myself that I recall.  It's a elementary school story, not a preschool story.  Although Frances is a badger (?), she acts and reacts like a real seven or eight year old.  She's very much Ramona in a badger suit, only in picture book form.  Kevin Henkes mice exist in this world too. Animals standing in for people.

There is real poetry in this book - funny little rhymes that Frances makes up.  But the true poetry is in the language of the storytelling. There is a rhythm and cadence to the entire story, brilliantly complicated, sparse sentences.  Sentences written like free form poetry.  Here's a description of Albert eating his lunch at school:

Albert took two napkins from his lunch box.
He tucked one napkin under his chin.
He spread the other one on his desk like a tablecloth.
He arranged his lunch neatly on the napkin.
With his spoon he cracked the shell of the hard-boiled egg.
He peeled away the shell and bit off the end of the egg.
He sprinkled salt on the yolk and set the egg down again.
He unscrewed his thermos-bottle cup and filled it with milk.
Then he was ready to eat his lunch.
He took a bite of sandwich, a bit of pickle,
a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk.
Then he sprinkled more salt on the egg and went around again.
Albert made the sandwich, the pickle,
the egg, and the milk come out even.
He ate his bunch of grapes and his tangerine.
Then he cleared away the crumpled-up wax paper,
the eggshell, and the tangerine peel.
He set the cup custard in the middle of the napkin on his desk.
He took up his spoon and ate up all the custard.
Then Albert folded up his napkins and put them away.
He put away his cardboard saltshaker and his spoon.
He screwed the cup on top of his thermos bottle.
He shut his lunch box,
and put it back inside his desk, and sighed.
"I like to have a good lunch," said Albert.

Wow, brilliant, brilliant piece of poetry.  It's all about tone, isn't it?  I could read that aloud in a sing song children's librarian voice, or in a excited storyteller voice.  Put a poetry slam voice to that, and you have free form verse about Albert's lunch.

Of course, the next line is the absolute climax of the story:  "Frances ate her bread and jam and drank her milk."  Oh snap, Frances!  We just have this beautiful, exquisite, poetic lunch described to us in lush, sensuous detail - and Frances has her same old bread and jam, a contrast of incredible proportion.  

Every word carefully chosen, even carefully placed on the page for greatest impact.  

We need the pictures though - it is a picture book - and these are some of the most famous of all time.  Everyone of a certain age probably recognizes Frances (I think she has a television show now, which is a real shame - some characters should exist purely on the page and should not come to life - weren't the pictures lifelike enough?).

I'm flabbergasted a bit on how poignant and beautiful this book is, and not because of nostalgia.  It's really, really good not because I have emotions attached  to it, or grandma reading it aloud, but because it's one of the very best picture books ever written.

Bread and Jam for FrancesBread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most perfectly written picture books - perhaps one of the most perfectly written books ever.  Every single word is meticulously chosen, carefully placed on the page, like an artist painting a masterpiece.  Wipe away the familiar story for a moment, the (just right) illustrations of badgers (?), and the now familiar rite of childhood trope of picky eaters, and rather think about this book as a long, free verse poem.  It's a rich, lush, descriptive book that aches to be read aloud, not just in a sing-songy "I'm reading to kids" way, but in a poetic manner, like a bard or a poetry slammer.  I know, it seems silly, but think about the way Russell Hoban chose his words, placed on them page, purposefully slashing sentences in half to add to the strong, declarative tone.  Consider Albert's lunch, with Frances dismal bread and jam as a short, sad comparison. Bread and Jam for Frances is filled with this kind of incredible, thoughtful, deliberate writing. It's monumental.    

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