Category: Reading with my Daughters

Is “A Bargain for Frances” the best book ever written about childhood friendships?

Oonagh brought this book home as part of her home-reading program last week and it isn’t that I had forgotten how good it is, it’s just that we don’t own a copy so I’m not constantly reminded how good it is. The only Frances book we own is A Baby Sister for Frances and it’s also hilarious. In fact all of the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban are brilliant but A Bargain for Frances is my favourite.

Frances, in case you don’t know, is a Badger who deals with a lot of life’s problems by making up pithy songs about them. The dialogue in the books is brilliant and the Hobans had four children (Russell Hoban went on to have three more after their divorce) which means they were probably surrounded by hilarious toddler/child-speak for many years – I know I was. (Still am.)

A Bargain for Frances is special in the sense that it is about dealing with a friend who isn’t really a friend. These days we would call Thelma a frenemy. Or: a manipulative little b***h, who Frances keeps playing with anyway because this is who she has to play with in the neighbourhood.

This was written in the 60’s so there isn’t any parental hand-holding in the book. When Frances tells her mom that she is going to play with Thelma her mom reminds her of all the crap things Thelma has done to her the last couple times they have played together. It is obvious that playing with Thelma isn’t a good idea but the mom doesn’t keep her home or arrange a “playdate” (I’m starting to really hate that term) with someone else. She just gives Frances a warning. And when the inevitable happens Frances has to use her creativity to get back at Thelma.

When Frances gets Thelma back for manipulating her out of her money (and once again Frances little sister Gloria points out things succinctly) Thelma realizes that she has to be careful around Frances now. But being careful is more work than being friends which, of course, is how the story ends – and with Frances making up a song about it. There is no parental interference about how you have to be nice to everyone – just creative problem solving which is essentially the backbone of all the Frances books.

What we are reading lately.

I love Fridays. I love Mondays too because the girls all go back to school and I can get back to a routine. But I also love Fridays because the girls don’t come home until 12:30 – and even though they have the afternoon off, that time difference gives me almost an extra hour to myself.

This extra time means I can tell you about this book series we are currently reading:

The Wells & Wong Mysteries by Robin Stevens. (Series is called Murder Most Unladylike outside of North America.) Agatha Christie-esque middle grade detectives set in the 1930s. Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are best friends who attend boarding school together. Moira and Fionnuala are loving these. So much so that I find I’m reading long after my throat has gotten sore. Also, they couldn’t wait for me to finish Poison is Not Polite – which we were reading together – and they both read First Class Murder, the book that comes after it. Now we have finished Poison is Not Polite and I am being forced to skip to reading Jolly Foul Play aloud and read First Class Murder on my own. This is very frustrating when I like things to GO A CERTAIN WAY but I certainly can’t let my stick-up-the-bum-mommishness ruin their enthusiasm about a book series. In fact they are enjoying it so much that they are on the hunt for second hand copies for us to keep and to give away to friends.

Hazel Wong is Chinese. Her family is rich and from Hong Kong. Robins often touches on how Hazel is treated by 1930’s British society. Hazel considers herself a proper English girl – mostly: dad was educated at Eton after all. Her best friend Daisy Wells is from an old aristocratic family that have title but little money (by aristocratic standards – genteel poverty as opposed to real poverty). But of course it is Hazel who often gets mistaken as a servant. I’ve mentioned the series to a couple of friends whose daughters would like to see more representation of themselves in books. I don’t feel I am qualified to make a judgement whether this is well done or not from their point of view. I know we all love Hazel. She is the smart and astute Watson to Daisy’s Sherlock.

I’ve really been enjoying mysteries lately – whether they are genuine old mysteries of Ngiao Marsh and Agatha Christie or the more modern Lady Julia Grey series and Veronica Speedwell series of Deanna Reybourn. We have taken to getting older BBC Agatha Christie DVDs out of the library too (the ones staring Joan Hickson). So far I haven’t been able to play my favourite game “spot the Harry Potter actor” while watching any of them though.

All this mystery reading has me wondering if I could write a mystery novel for the girls but I have so many other things on my plate to finish first. I did what I set out to do this week – submit my completed (or as completed as I can get it at this time, is anything ever really finished?) picture book manuscript to an agent. Now I’m trying to put it out of my head for a while and work on other things.

Other things I am reading:

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen. This is in preparation for a trip I am taking in May when I hope to stop off in Corcord, MA.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I’m listening to this on audio while I knit (almost done the third owlet sweater). It’s unusual that I would watch something before reading it but I finished the TV series recently and wanted to know more. The book is answering a lot of questions.

Anyone else watch A Discovery of Witches on TV? And are you a Miss Marple or a Hercule Poirot fan? I’m a Marple fan.

Reading With My Daughters: Sophie’s Masterpiece

 

Sophie’s Masterpiece by Eileen Spinelli, Illustrated by Jane Dyer.

I bought this book years ago as a discard from our local public library. Moira was most likely a baby at the time I bought it but I will confess to buying picture books before I even considered having children so I may have had it for even longer than I have had children. Oonagh pulled it out again the other day and, even though I have probably read this book hundreds of times, it still makes me weepy at the end.

 

The story is about a talented spider who just wants to spin beautiful things but because she is a spider her work isn’t always appreciated. Sophie lives in a boarding house and one day discovers a young woman who is going to have a baby (alone!). After being kicked from one room to another Sophie is too old and tired to move but the young woman doesn’t freak out and leaves Sophie alone (which is what we do in our house when we see spiders for the eight months of winter we live through each year – the other four months we take them outside). The young woman is too poor to be able to afford a blanket and so Sophie weaves one for her.

 

Sometimes the girls laugh at me when I get weepy because Sophie gives her life for that blanket, and sometimes they are getting teary right beside me. It’s a beautiful story and the soft illustrations by Jane Dyer (who illustrated that staple of children’s home libraries: Time For Bed) are pretty much perfect. Even Moira still enjoys it when I read this book aloud and I’ve been reading this book aloud now for 10 years – and sometimes I find her reading it to herself. That’s the sign of a great book.

(Also I’m so grateful that the girls still want me to read to them I thought I would do a whole series on the books we read.)