Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Frances!

Karen MacPherson's syndicated Children's Corner column this week alerted me to an important occasion: the 50th birthday of Frances, star of the classic picture book series by Russell Hoban. (I strongly recommend reading Karen's column - always good and this one is chock full of interesting facts about Frances and how she came to be. Also, if you haven't read the Frances books, it's time to get to the library. Or better yet, go buy them.)

I first met Frances, the strong-willed, persnickety, song-writing, problem-solving badger, when I was a strong-willed, persnickety child myself. Although song-writing and problem-solving weren't my strengths so much, it's still small wonder that I identified with the young badger. The challenges Frances faces are universal ones of early childhood, and she confronts them with a quirky intelligence and creativity that I found both inspiring and reassuring. 

To celebrate this important event, I broke out some homemade bread and jam and my copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, my favoritest Frances book of all. Everything was delicious, and the dog enjoyed our read-aloud very much.

Possibly what she liked best was that I shared my bread and jam with her.

Anyway, I noticed something while I was reading the book: one spread seemed kind of familiar to me. And then I realized why.

The lower image is a spread in my Mimi book that I must have unconsciously modeled on the Frances one shown above. How funny!

By the way, notice how my copy of Bread and Jam for Frances is in black and white with blue washes? At the time the book was printed (1964 - this was a book club copy I got through school), color printing was still both expensive and tedious. Illustrators had to meticulously make color separations by hand, with separate transparencies created for each color used. These were done in shades of gray and took real skill. That's why the old books often had only one or two colors. I feel very fortunate to be able to do my illustrations with full color and any media!

Over the years, the Frances books have been re-released with color. The top image shows two different era versions of the cover of A Birthday for Frances. And here's a comparison of an inside spread.
It's probably just nostalgia, but I like the older one better. (I do like the new color one too - just not quite as much.)

Another interesting thing to note is how much more text-heavy the older picture books were than ones published today.  A friend who attended a children's writing conference last weekend said the editor who spoke recommended no more than 50 words for a picture book text. I wonder if the push for shorter and shorter texts for pretty much all picture books has contributed to the decline in their sales; as the New York Times noted recently, many parents are pushing their kids to listen to chapter books at earlier and earlier ages. Maybe they would feel less need to do so if they had meaty complex picture books like these old ones available.

Here's a brief excerpt of a scene between Frances and her mother to give you a feeling for the quality of the writing and for Frances' personality. Mother is getting things together for Frances's sister's birthday, and Frances is working through her jealousy by pretending to prepare a party for an imaginary pal:
"Who is Alice?" asked Mother.
     "Alice is somebody that no one can see," said Frances. "And that is why she does not have a birthday. So I am singing Happy Thursday to her."
     "Today is Friday," said Mother.
     "It is Thursday for Alice," said Frances. "Alice will not have h-r-n-d, and she will not have g-k-l-s. But we are singing together."
     "What are h-r-n-d and g-k-l-s?" asked Mother.
     "Cake and candy. I thought you could spell," said Frances.
By the way, in case I've convinced you to rush out and buy copies of all the Frances books (and I hope I have), you need to be aware that in honor of Frances' birthday, HarperCollins has released abridged versions of the Frances books in an "I Can Read" format for beginning readers. I haven't seen them yet, and it's encouraging that Hoban and his daughter worked together on the reformat. But I'm sure I'll never love them the way I love the originals - and I definitely recommend reading them first.

Last but not least: food. You can find my recipe for the homemade bread I nibbled today in an earlier post here. And, in case like Frances, you have learned to like some other more adventurous foods as well, here is a recipe for soup that I think goes especially well with the bread. I got the recipe from a neighbor, who got it from a cookbook - but I don't know which cookbook and the neighbor has long since moved away. I think it was called Chippewa Soup. I also may not have the recipe quite right. Somehow I never actually wrote it down; I just kind of remember it - plus I've undoubtedly changed it over the years because I am as much a revision addict for recipes as I am for the written word.

Tomato Vegetable Soup
aka Chippewa Soup
aka The Best Soup You'll Ever Eat on a Chilly Autumn Night

Olive oil
2-3 yellow onions, finely chopped
3-4 ribs celery, finely chopped
2-3 carrots, shredded
2-3 cloves garlic (Note: if you are lazy or pressed for time, most supermarkets carry all the veggies pre-chopped/shredded and sometimes it is just worth the extra expense)
Curry powder to taste -- I use 1 T mild curry powder when making it for people who don’t like spicy stuff (aka children), 2-3 for the more adventurous eaters (aka certain adults)
1 tsp cumin
Ground black pepper
1 26-oz can Campbell’s tomato soup, plus water to reconstitute it
2 11-oz cans Campbell’s Green Pea soup - but NO water. (Yes, it is really gross looking right out of the can. Try not to think about it.)
1 cup milk or cream (more if you prefer a thinner soup)
1 ham hock (optional)
Chopped ham (optional)
Dollop of low fat sour cream (optional)

In a large stock pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, celery, garlic and carrots and saut√© until the onions are translucent and the celery and carrots are softened. Mix in seasonings and cook, stirring, for a minute or two to combine flavors well. Add soups and water (it is really tricky to get the pea soup stirred in well - but worth the trouble because coming across a big lump of the concentrate when you're eating your soup is an unpleasant surprise, in my book). Add ham hock, if using. Try not to examine it too closely as this may also gross you out. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer on low heat at least one hour (more is better). Stir occasionally to prevent soup from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Shortly before serving, stir in milk or cream (and chopped ham if desired) and heat through.

This is quite good served on a doily with a tiny vase of violets, along with a crisp green salad and Swedish Sour Rye bread. If you are careful, you can take bites of each and make everything come out even.

And if you did not get this literary allusion, I am going to admonish you even more strongly to go check Bread and Jam for Frances out of the library.


Dave Amaditz said...

Interesting points, Carol. Your viewpoint on the possible decline of picture books sounds very interesting to me.

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Thanks Dave. One of these days I'll probably have a full out rant about what is the world coming to, even thinking about killing off the picture book - but I'm waiting, hoping I'll be able to calm down and be reasonable.

Wendy Braun said...

Carol - thanks for this tribute! I linked it in my blog ( I've written about your books in the past and just love what you've done.
I'm also very concerned about the decline of picture book sales! (and blogged about that particular article from the Times.) A children's book artist I met through blogging said that editors don't even have that much say - it all comes from their publishers, who want to keep up with the "trends". Comes down to money - but like you said, they're losing sales and should take note! Thanks again!

Wendy Braun said...

By the way - you have such a cute post about St. Nicholas Day! Do you mind if I link to your paper shoe template when his "day" draws closer? :)

Marcy Collier said...

Great and timely post about picture books, Carol and the recipe looks delicious!

Susan Chapek said...

This soup sounds wonderful! Thanks for the formula.