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Originally published Friday, November 12, 2010 at 5:00 PM

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'Bedtime for Frances' marks 50 years of charming kids

Kids' Books: Frances, star of six classic picture books written by Russell Hoban, is turning 50 this year. She first appeared in "Bedtime for Frances" in 1960.

Scripps Howard News Service

Corner Books: Harper Collins reissues "Frances" books on 50th anniversary

She looks like a badger, but she acts just like a typical preschooler: stubborn and delightful, infuriating and entertaining, wily and innocent.

She's Frances, star of six classic picture books written by Russell Hoban. And this year, Frances, who first appeared in "Bedtime for Frances"in 1960, is turning 50.

The charm of "Frances" books has never faded. She captivates each new generation with her songs, her intelligence and her preschooler way of viewing the world in books like "Bread and Jam for Frances," "A Baby Sister for Frances," and "A Birthday for Frances."

From learning to put yourself to sleep to dealing with a new sibling, each of the "Frances" books tackles a challenging preschooler issue with wit and wisdom. And, as in all of the best children's books, the "Frances" books appeal equally to children and adults, making them perfect for a family read — loud session.

"She is such a real little girl in situations that don't date,"said Amy Kellman, a children's literature consultant in Pittsburgh. "Those books should be in every young child's library."

To celebrate Frances' 50th birthday, HarperCollins has put together a "Frances" collection, working with Hoban and his daughter Phoebe to abridge the books for the "I Can Read!" format for beginning readers. The package of three paperback books — "Bread and Jam For Frances," "Best Friends For Frances," and "A Bargain For Frances" — costs $11.99 and is perfect for children who are learning to read.

The original picture books still are wonderful, however, for parent-child reading sessions. And don't miss the truly standout audio versions of four "Frances" books, read by actress Glynis Johns, in "The Frances Audio Collection" (HarperCollins, $14.99).

When the first "Frances" book was published, Hoban was an established freelance illustrator. Hoban's first children's book, published in 1959, was "What Does It Do and How Does It Work?"

His editor on that book was Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) editor who published "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Goodnight Moon."

Nordstrom played a large role in shaping "Bedtime For Frances." Letters from Nordstrom to Hoban, included in "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom" fascinatingly detail some of that process.

In a letter dated July 24, 1959, Nordstrom argues that "Whose (sic) Afraid?" — the first title for "Bedtime For Frances" — "is going to need a lot more work.


"You simply didn't take any time to set the stage, get any characters, (or) think about the situation," Nordstrom writes in her typically forthright way.

Nordstrom was happier, but still not satisfied, with a later version offered by Hoban, noting in a letter dated Dec. 1, 1959: "It is better but not exactly right so give it a little more of a push."

But she concluded that letter on a soothing note, saying: "Don't get tense about this, Russ. The perfect ending is right there, somewhere, and we still have some days before the final setting [of the book for publication] has to be done."

The "perfect ending"involved Frances remembering her father's threat to spank her if she didn't go to bed, something that has bothered many parents who don't believe in corporal punishment. Others, however, use it as a teachable moment for explaining why they don't believe in spanking.

The illustrations for the book were another challenge. While Hoban was a professional artist, he actually loathed doing illustrations for his children's books. So Nordstrom engaged artist Garth Williams to do the illustrations for "Bedtime For Frances."Hoban's first wife, artist Lillian Hoban, did the illustrations on the rest of the "Frances"books.

It was Williams who finally came up with the idea to make Frances and her family badgers. Hoban originally had thought of them as voles, something Nordstrom strongly disliked.

As she wrote to Hoban, "I think it is sort of a good idea not to make her a human little girl, but why a vole? I sort of wish any other creature by a vole, which looks like a mouse. I think it is terribly difficult to draw ATTRACTIVE mice and I am speaking as the editor who tried eight artists for "Stuart Little" before Garth Williams finally came through for good old Harper."

Since moving to England four decades ago, Hoban has mostly concentrated on writing adult novels, including his highly acclaimed novel "Ridley Walker."

But Hoban acknowledged in a recent interview with Publishers Weekly that, "the Frances books are the most popular of all my writing efforts. They outsell my novels and everything else."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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