The first time I read this story to my daughter (who was five at the time), I paused half-way through the book and asked her, “do you know what’s happening here?” Being new to the socialized forms of female manipulation, she shook her head. I read on, then we re-read it over and over.
This book is genius at using the simplest language possible to illuminate the complex social dynamics most of us need years of therapy to unpack. The true craft here can be found in the Russell Hoban’s dialog.
Here’s the first exchange, during a playdate, when Thelma seeds the fear of loss in Frances, who is planning to save up for a specific tea set:
“I don’t think they make them anymore,” said Thelma. “I know another girl who saved up for that tea set. Her mother went to every store and could not find one. The that girl lost some of her money and spent the rest on candy. She never got the tea set. This is what happens. A lot of girls never do get tea sets. So maybe you won’t get one.”
Such elegant brutality, that crafty Thelma! What’s fantastic about this little monologue is how true to life it all sounds, parroting the adult world of manipulation and gossip. This is what happens. Brilliant.
Later in the story the kid term “backsies” is used. Why don’t adults use that anymore? You’ve signed the contract already….no backsies. The tactic Frances uses to win back her tea set is a deft case study in game theory:
“But are you sure you really want no backsies?’
“Sure I’m sure,” said Thelma.
“You mean I never have to give back the tea set?” said Frances.
“That’s right,” said Thelma.
“Can I keep what’s in the sugar bowl too?” said Frances.
“What is in the sugar bowl?”
The phone call is quickly ended and Frances waits for Thelma to call back, knowing she has played her own had of seeding of doubt. Yes, it is written for five-year olds, but it speaks to so much in dramatic literature, playing with what the audience knows and poor Thelma does not. This is a must have in the early reader series, but particularly for parents with daughters.