I’m writing this on the morning of Friday, the 16th of December.
Yesterday’s New York Times featured two big obituaries that were of note to people in the world of books and letters. George Whitman, the owner of (as people kept saying) the fabled, the legendary, Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co., died at the age of 98. I never went to Shakespeare & Co. and I really don’t have much to say about the place, though obviously it was a landmark and hugely important. Godspeed to you, Mr. Whitman. But I am bitter and sad about the attention Whitman’s death attracted because the other big obituary I read yesterday affected me much more deeply, and I was surprised that I didn’t read the sad responses to it on Facebook that I had genuinely expected.
Russell Hoban died.
Were you ever a child? When you were little, did you read those books about the little badger named Frances who made up songs about how she didn’t like eggs? Who had a little sister named Gloria who loved Chompo bars? Whose best friend, Albert, was obviously going to grow up to be the only confirmed bachelor badger in town? Who had an awful friend named Thelma who was such a bitch that I cannot imagine ever naming a child of mine Thelma?
Russell Hoban wrote a short but hugely important series of stories about Frances. Bread and Jam for Frances; Bedtime for Frances; A Bargain for Frances; A Birthday for Frances; Best Friends for Frances; A Baby Sister for Frances. They are all absolutely wonderful. The illustrations were by Hoban’s wife, Lillian, except for the one done by the master Garth Williams (I feel bad about this, but have to admit that the one with the Williams illustrations is actually the one where I like the pictures the least -- this is not unlike how the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book that I like the least, even though it’s wonderful, is illustrated by Maurice Sendak -- I prefer the Hilary Knight illustrations in the other three titles). Hoban wrote many, many other books, including acclaimed works for grownups. But I know nothing about them. I tell you this not in a boastful way, but just to make it clear I am no authority on Russell Hoban.
But I can tell you this: Hoban is a guy whose work was essential to the formation of thousands and thousands and thousands of readers around the world. Maybe not all highbrow readers -- maybe not the sort of people who shopped at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. But they were readers. And they loved those books.
When I was small, I spent a lot of time in the tiny town of Enfield, New Hampshire. There isn’t much happening in Enfield and there was even less happening then, when I was little. But they had a charming public library, which was a Victorian house that had been converted into a library. Every summer I would borrow the same books from that library. These were books I would never have touched the rest of the year, when I was in New Haven -- they were special summertime only books. The Frances books were summertime books. So was Eloise in Paris. Sacred titles, these.
When the Foundry Bookstore was still around, one day, about ten years ago, I very coolly went in and bought all of the Frances books they had -- I think there were four titles in stock. I didn’t need them, strictly speaking, but I thought, “I need to take these home and keep them safe.” I read them once and tucked them away on my shelf, with no intention of doing anything with them except enjoying them now and then.
Now, I have a three year old who adores the Frances books, which I have been reading to her since she was an infant. She loves to eat bread and jam because of Frances. We will always have copies of the Frances books in our house. Because not enough people seem to be taking this seriously, I will be loud when I say Rest in peace, Mr. Hoban. I know I didn’t know all your work, but what I knew, I loved.