Bedtime for Frances: The Greatest Bedtime Story of All Time
It’s a true injustice that the Frances books by Russell Hoban aren’t even more famous than they already are. Bedtime for Frances came out in 1960, and it alone should have been enough to make Hoban a household name for all eternity. It’s simply a perfect picture book, and I think it’s hands down the best bedtime story ever made.
Bedtime in our home is book time. It’s an incredibly important ritual, and it’s a great way to wind down and bond and get the mind ready for imaginative dreams. Every single day of our kids’ lives has ended with a pile of books - and absolutely any book can be a bedtime story in that sense. So when I say Bedtime for Frances is the best bedtime story ever - I’m talking about the best picture book about bedtime.
Bedtime for Frances is perfect because it does so many things well - primarily humor, fear, and a display of loving, patient parenting. It’s very hard to argue with the credentials of a book that legitimately shines in all three of these categories. And that’s why Bedtime for Frances ultimately landed at number three on our list of our favorite picture books of all time, and our list of the best scary picture books of all time.
Let’s take a closer look at all three of these qualities of Bedtime for Frances, starting with the humor. I swear, this book is absolutely dripping with the very highest quality of dry humor and deadpan delivery I’ve ever seen. Part of its secret lies in the construction of the text and the repetition of the dialogue throughout. So not only do the characters deliver hilarious deadpan lines, but the book itself is delivered deadpan.
The first three pages of the book are dedicated to a hilariously long and drawn out bedtime ritual:
Father kissed Frances good night.
Mother kissed Frances good night.
Frances said, “May I sleep with my teddy bear?”
Father gave her the teddy bear.
Frances said, “May I sleep with my doll, too?”
Mother gave her the doll.
”Good night,” said Father.
”Good night,” said Mother.
”Did you kiss me?” said Frances.
”Yes,” said Mother.
”Yes,” said Father.
”Kiss me again,” said Frances.
Father kissed her again.
Mother kissed her again.
This brilliant back and forth goes on for three entire pages. Mother and Father basically give Frances everything she wants as this entire production goes on for a comically long time. And when they finally manage to leave, the very next line is the simple “Frances could not sleep.” After this her imagination starts to go wild, and we’re blessed with such deadpan beauties as “There is a giant in my room. May I watch television?” and “Something scary is going to come out of the crack in the ceiling. I forgot to brush my teeth.”
And speaking of giants and scary things coming out of the ceiling, that brings me to the other fantastic thing about Bedtime for Frances. It is legitimately scary. It terrified me as a kid. And, in case you were wondering, I think that’s a good thing! I love being scared. The illustrations by Garth Williams fired up my imagination in a way very few picture books ever did during my childhood. The image of the giant in the corner, the mysterious crack in the ceiling, even just a picture of Frances with a look of concern on her face - it’s all enough to bring back the creepy feelings I used to feel when my parents read it to me.
Hoban genuinely seems to have remembered just what nighttime can feel like for kids when they’re alone in a dark room. Your imagination can get away from you and the emotions can be very powerful. I have vivid memories of doing silly things like leaping onto my bed so my feet couldn’t be grabbed by anything underneath. And everything is immediately solved if you just walk into the living room where your parents are watching TV, or into your parents’ bathroom where they are brushing their teeth. The association is so powerful for me that I always picture myself as a child walking into my parents’ bathroom where my own dad is brushing his teeth when I read this book.
And that brings me to the third beautiful thing about this book. The parents are really incredible. As you can tell from the hilarious, deadpan repetition of the dialogue, they are unbelievably patient. They even give in to Frances’ request to join them for cake when she comes out scared. And each time Frances comes out with a new fear, they have the cleverest way to explain things to her.
Father said, “How do you know he wants to get you?”
Frances said, “Isn’t that what giants do?”
Father said, “Not always. Why don’t you ask him what he wants?”
Frances went back to her room.
She went right over to the giant.
She said, “What do you want, Giant?”
But it’s important to point out that these parents are still very relatable, and patience does not last forever. When her parents are finally sleeping and Frances stands quietly in front of her dad’s face until he wakes up, he gives the most hilarious, patient, well-thought-out explanation for why Frances needs to go to bed and go to sleep - and he just barely skirts the edge of his thinning patience in the funniest possible way.
Bedtime for Frances does a lot of things right, but I think the true greatness of this book belongs to the fact that there is something for everybody inside regardless of age. As a child, the pictures terrified me and I could empathize with the way Frances’ imagination fed her fear at night. I could definitely relate to the idea of leaving my bedroom over and over, and wanting to see what my parents were up to.
And as an adult I can definitely empathize with Mother and Father - who really, really want Frances to stay asleep. But they manage to muster up more patient parenting each time she pokes her head out the door. In that sense, Bedtime for Frances is really the most realistic depiction of what bedtime is actually like ever made.
Which Frances book is your favorite? Does your family have a different favorite bedtime book? Let us know in the comments!