More than Flat Stanley, more than Babar, more than Curious George, it was a quiet little school-aged badger, name of Frances, who I considered a friend when I was a small child. She was the invention of Russell Hoban, the Pennsylvania-born son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants (his father worked for a time at the Jewish Daily Forward), who was an illustrator and a writer of books for both children and adults. Science fiction fans will know him for the apocalyptic Riddley Walker, of which I knew nothing until yesterday, when news broke of his death at the age of 86 in London, where he lived for the past 42 years.
For me, Russell Hoban’s genius was Frances in all her captivating predicaments. They weren’t zany or far-fetched. Her life was familiar. She stalled at bedtime. She subsisted on bread and jam. She sang self-pityingly to herself. She had a little sister, Gloria (so hilariously odd, my 5-year-old self thought; who named their child Gloria?). Drawn first by Garth Williams and then by Hoban’s wife, Lillian, Frances and her world didn’t explode in color on the page, as do the worlds of so many other favorite childhood characters. The palette of Frances’ life was more modest, certainly, but it was hardly empty. I identified with this badger, with her soft-spokenness and pickiness, though I didn’t know what a badger was back then. I had trouble sleeping, I had a younger sister, and while I didn’t care for jam, I loved toast—white bread smeared with cream cheese. Nothing else. For years it’s what I ate for breakfast and dinner and it’s an honest, happy wonder these bones of mine ever grew.