The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 10 Jun 2007


One of the books in the bedtime-reading rotation for my daughter Katara is A Bargain for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban. (Russell Hoban is also the author of a number of acclaimed novels for adults, most notably Riddley Walker.) The plot and character relationships in A Bargain for Frances are quite complex, probably about at the limit of what a two-year-old can handle. I will try to summarize.

Frances the badger is having a tea party with her friend Thelma, who has previously behaved abusively to her. Thelma's tea set is plastic, with red flowers. Frances is saving up her money for a real china tea set with blue pictures. Thelma asserts that those tea sets are no longer made, and that they are prohibitively expensive. She offers to sell Frances her own tea set, in return for Frances's savings of $2.17. Frances agrees. End of act I.

When Frances returns home with the plastic tea set, her little sister Gloria criticizes it, saying repeatedly that it is "ugly". She reports that the china kind with blue pictures is available in the local candy store for $2.07, and that Thelma knows this. Frances rushes to the candy store, where she witnesses Thelma buying a china tea set with her money. End of act II.

There is an act III, but I do not want to spoil the ending.

There is quite a lot here to engage the mind of a two-year-old: what does it mean to make a trade, for example? And Thelma is quite devious in the way she talks up the benefits of her plastic tea set ("It does not break, unless you step on it") while dissembling her own desire for a china one. Katara has not yet learned to deceive others for her own benefit, and I think this is her first literary exposure to the idea.

I mentioned at one point that Thelma had told a lie: she had said "I don't think they make that kind [of tea set] anymore" when she knew that the very tea set was available at the candy store. Katara was very interested by this observation. She asked me repeatedly, over a period of a several weeks, to explain to her what a lie was. I had some trouble, because I did not have any good examples to draw on. Katara does not do it yet, and Lorrie and I do not lie to Katara either.

One time I tried to explain lies by telling Katara about how people sometimes tell children that if they do not behave, goblins will come and take them away. Of course, this didn't work. First I had to explain what goblins were. Katara was very disturbed at the thought of goblins that might take her away. I had to reassure Katara that there were no goblins. We got completely sidetracked on a discussion of goblins. I should have foreseen this, but it was the best example I was able to come up with on the spur of the moment.

Later I thought of a better example, with no distracting goblins: suppose Katara asks for raspberries, and I know there are some in the refrigerator, but I tell her that we have none, because I want to eat them myself. I think this was just a little bit too complicated for Katara. It has four parts, and I try to keep explanations to three parts, which seems to be about the maximum that she can follow at once. (Two parts is even better.) I think Katara attached too much significance to the raspberries; for a while she seemed to think that lying had something to do with raspberries.

Oh well, at least I tried. She will catch on soon enough, I am sure.

Perhaps the most complex idea in the book is this: when Frances and Thelma agree to trade money for tea set, they agree on "no backsies". This is an important plot point. After the second or third reading, Katara asked me what "no backsies" meant.

I had to think about this carefully before I answered, because it is quite involved, and until I thought it through, I was not sure I understood it myself. You might want to think about this before reading on. Remember that it's not enough to understand it; you have to be able to explain it.

My understanding of "no backsies" was that normally, when friends trade, there is an assumption that the exchange may be unilaterally voided by either party, as long as this is done timely. You can come back the next day and say you have changed your mind, and your friend, being your friend, is expected to consent. Specifying "no backsies" establishes an advance agreement that this is not the case. If you come back the next day, your friend can protest "but we said there were no backsies on this" and refuse to undo the trade. (The trade can, of course, be voided later if both parties agree.)

So to understand this, you must first understand what it means to trade, and why. Katara took this in early on, and fairly easily. You also have to understand the idea that one or both parties might want to change their minds later; this is also something Katara can get her head around. Toddlers know all about what it means to change one's mind.

But then you have to understand that one party might want to annul the agreement and the other party might not. Tracking two people's independent and conflicting desires is probably a little too hard for Katara at this stage. She can sometimes understand another person's point of view, by identification. ("You sometimes feel like x; here this other person feels the same way.") And similarly she can immerse herself in the world-view of the protagonist of a book, and understand that the protagonist's desires might be frustrated by another character. But to immerse herself in both world-views simultaneously is beyond her.

"No backsies" goes beyond this: you have to understand the idea that an agreement might have default, unspoken conventions, and that the participants will adhere to these conventions even if they don't want to; this is not something that two-year-olds are good at doing yet. You have to understand the idea of an explicit modification to the default conditions; that part is not too hard, and everyday examples abound. But then you have to understand what the unspoken convention actually is, and how it is being modified, and the difference between a unilateral annulment of an agreement and a bilateral one. Again, I think it's the bilaterality that's hard for Katara to understand. She is still genuinely puzzled when I tell her we should leave the public restroom clean for the next person.

Really, though, the main difficulty is just that the idea is very complicated. Maybe I'm wrong about which parts are harder and which parts are easier, and perhaps Katara can understand any of the pieces separately. But at two years old she can't yet sustain a train of thought as complicated as the one required to pull together all the pieces of "no backsies". This sort of understanding is one of the essential components of being an adult, and she will get it sooner or later; probably sooner.

This is not the only part of the book that repays careful thought. At one point, during Thelma's monologue about the unavailability of china tea sets, she says:

I know another girl who saved up for that tea set. Her mother went to every store and could not find one. Then that girl lost some of her money and spent the rest on candy. She never got the tea set. A lot of girls never do get tea sets. So maybe you won't get one.
One evening my wife Lorrie asked me who I thought Thelma was speaking about in that passage. I replied that I had always understood it as a pure fabrication, and that there was no "other girl".

Lorrie said that she thought that Thelma had been speaking about herself, that Thelma had saved up her money, and her mother had gone looking for a china tea set, been unable to find one, and had brought home the plastic set as a consolation prize.

The crucial clue was the detail about how the "other girl" spent the rest of her money on candy, which is just a bit too specific for a mere fabrication.

Once you try out the hypothesis that Thelma is speaking personally, a lot of other details fall into place. For example, her assertion that "A lot of girls never do get tea sets" is no longer a clever invention on her part: she is repeating something her mother told her to shut her up when she expressed her disappointment over receiving a plastic instead of a china tea set. Her sales pitch to Frances about why a plastic tea set is better than a china one can be understood as an echo of her mother's own attempts to console her.

My wife is very clever, and was an English major to boot. She is skilled at noticing such things both by native talent and by long training of that talent.

Good children's literature does reward a close reading, and like good adult literature, reveals additional depths on multiple readings. It seems to me that books for small children are more insipid than they used to be, but that could just be fuddy-duddyism, or it could be selection bias: I no longer remember the ones I loved as a child that would now seem insipid precisely because they would now seem insipid.

But the ability to produce good literature at any level is rare, so it is probably just that there only a few great writers in every generation can do it. Russell Hoban was one of the best here.

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