Picture Books...for High Schoolers?

If you are already thinking about the reading list you will assign to your students next fall, congratulations – you are way ahead of Missy and me! But let me offer one piece of advice as you assemble your curriculum: Assign children’s picture storybooks to all of your students in the first few weeks of the school year.

You heard me right: even if your students are in high school and you plan to assign Great Expectations or Shakespeare’s Hamlet this year, be sure to start with a book like Russell Hoban’s A Bargain for Frances first. It will help you review the basics of good reading and analysis with your students, knock the summer rust out of their heads, and keep them interested all the while.

A Bargain for Frances

Hoban’s story opens on young Frances planning a tea party with her friend Thelma. Frances’ mother warns her to be careful when she plays with Thelma, because the latter has a history of taking advantage of Frances’ naïveté. Sure enough, the tea party becomes the latest episode in this unfortunate history. 

Frances lets drop that she has been saving her money for a blue china tea set. As the result of some deft manipulation on Thelma’s part, Frances ends up buying Thelma’s old red plastic tea set instead. Thelma then sneaks off to the candy store to plunk the money down on the blue china one.

When Frances finds out about Thelma’s double cross, she hatches a plan to get even.  Using some of Thelma’s own techniques of manipulation, Frances persuades Thelma to give her the blue china tea set and take back her old red one. In the process, she confronts Thelma about the way the two have related to each other in the past, and they re-establish their friendship along healthier lines. “Being careful isn’t nice,” says Frances as the story closes. “Being friends is better.”

Why Frances?

I know what you must be thinking. By the time my students reach high school, shouldn’t they be reading more difficult books?

A Bargain for Frances is a simple story, there is no doubt about that. Indeed, it is an “I Can Read” Level 2 book, designed for kids in kindergarten through second grade who still need help reading on their own. In the entire story, only two words – “alligators” and “allowances” – have more than three syllables. If you have an older student who really needs to make progress through a high school reading list, you might think it would be a waste of time to analyze Frances as literature. 

But you would be wrong.

Frances is a time-honored classic of American literature for good reason. The fact that it was written for first graders should not blind you to its quality. Indeed, this fact actually makes it a better choice for your high school student than Hamlet or Great Expectations, especially if you are interested in teaching the principles of sound literary analysis. 

Structurally Sound

First, Frances contains all of the structural elements common to English fiction. It boasts well-drawn characters. There is a clear setting that is integral to the story’s plot and emphasizes its themes. Various conflicts between the characters drive the story forward along several lines. The story’s plot is well-designed and proceeds methodically from exposition and rising action through climax and denouement and down to an explicit conclusion. Finally, the story touches on several universal themes with which all readers can readily identify.

 Stylistically Simple

Second, Frances presents these elements in a straightforward, simple style that makes them easy to recognize, even by students fresh off a distracting summer vacation.

Obviously the vocabulary is simple, as I’ve mentioned.  But there’s more:

·      The divisions of the plot are quite explicit, often taking place in separate locations. Exposition gives way to rising action, climax, and denouement in such a way that even young or inexperienced readers can easily distinguish them.  

·      The climax of the story is put in the form of a question:  “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?” It is virtually impossible to miss, and it focuses our attention directly on one of the story’s main conflicts. 

·      Stylistic devices such as songs and rhymes offer explicit commentary on Frances’ internal development. They function much like the soliloquies in Hamlet, but without a language barrier to inhibit comprehension. 

Surprisingly Sagacious

Finally, Frances has surprising depth that supports higher level analysis.  It gives students a chance to sharpen their thinking skills before they tackle Shakespeare or Dickens.

The story has three distinct conflicts, for example, each resolving at separate moments in the story:

·      The “Man vs. Man” conflict between Frances and Thelma over possession of the china tea set resolves when Thelma agrees to the exchange. Seen through the lens of this conflict, the story’s main themes have to do with competition, manipulation, and justice.

·      The “Man vs. Himself” conflict within Frances resolves when she hatches a plan to get her money back and puts it into action. This resolution shows Frances growing up to be less gullible and emphasizes the story’s coming-of-age theme.

·      The “Man vs. Man” conflict between Frances and Thelma over the nature of their relationship resolves when Frances puts her final question to Thelma: “Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?” Thelma’s answer leads to a peaceful denouement and a concluding lesson about the importance of openness and honesty in friendship.

The fact that all of these conflicts develop and resolve themselves at different points in the same story allows the teacher to emphasize some crucial lessons of literary analysis. At the same time, the teacher can avoid overwhelming the student with an 800 page novel or five acts of 16th century Elizabethan poetry.

Once he has completed a careful discussion of Frances, the student can apply the same principles to Hamlet or Great Expectations immediately.  The structural elements of these works will be more easily recognizable; he’ll discern various conflicts and relate them to their key plot moments; he’ll have a more educated opinion about the story’s themes – in short, Frances can prepare him for honest-to-goodness literary analysis, perhaps more efficiently than any other book.

Best of all, an easily accessible story can be a lot more fun to discuss than a ponderous tome. This fact alone makes picture books like A Bargain for Frances perfect “back-to-school” assignments.

So, as you begin to prep for next year, don’t forget to include a picture book or two at the top of your reading list. You won’t be sorry.