"If I am kept away from writing I become physically unwell. It is art and the creation of art that sustains me." Russell Hoban 1925-2011
December 14, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Depending on when and what you started reading you may know Russell Hoban as the author of the children's book Bread and Jam for Frances or the post-apoocalyptic sci-fi novel Riddley Walker. Hoban also wrote Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas which was made into a one-hour Christmas Special originally aired by HBO in the 70's and re-released as recently as 2008. He published one book of poetry, The Last of the Wallendas, which included many dark poems such as The Dream of the Kraken. Hoban died in London last night, aged 86.

Hoban decided, at the age of 77, that he would try to write a book per year. He came quite close.
"I don't know if it is the same in every country, but here if you can live long enough it pays off," says the American-born Hoban, who has been a London resident for more than 30 years. "But I think death will be a good career move for me," he laughs. "People will say, 'yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'."
More specifics about the man on this slightly out-of-date Hoban fan page and links to tributes and memories on his facebook page and on the Yahoo group dedicated to him.
posted by jessamyn (83 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
He's gone where the river meets the sea.

posted by Faint of Butt at 9:49 AM on December 14, 2011

Oh, frig. Beat me to it. Here was the obit I was putting together, but I made it hard for myself--a pastiche of RW:

On twosday when he weret eighty sixed Russell Hoban gone died any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he go he werent all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he sat n rote uf badgers an tea tym and there we were then. I say, 'Your tern now my tern later.'

The woal thing fealt just that little bit stupid. He said he weret an adickt to tha ritings. He said, 'Iffen I keep way from it I come sik. Arrut stains me. Given me enerjies and now got into ritthims.'

I said, 'Hoban I dont know what you mean.'

He said, 'Mor an mor lyf comes a serie uff dispeeranses n repeeranses. You cum from mornin and peer as halfternoon, from feeling gud and repeer bad. We dispeer from each uther. But I think deth wud be a gud moof. Theyll say, 'yes, he weret a gud riter, lets luck at him gayn.''

More importantly: . You were an inspiration to me, Russell. Every winter is different now because of your books. Thank you for that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:50 AM on December 14, 2011 [32 favorites]

I just started reading Riddley Walker again. Tremendous, continually surprising book.

Thanks for a great post about him, too, Jessamyn. I had no idea he was behind the Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas. What a fascinating person.
posted by penduluum at 9:54 AM on December 14, 2011

I'm a Frances gal all the way. Loved Frances. One of the first things I did when they came out with alibris.com was repurchase all the Frances books. Can still recite some of her songs, which I won't torture you with here. Man, how I wanted that blue china tea set.

posted by Melismata at 9:55 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Huge fan of Hoban. Particularly RIDDLEY WALKER but THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD has to be my favorite.
posted by unSane at 9:57 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I keep meaning to read Riddley Walker. It's my wife's favorite book!
posted by kmz at 9:57 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a special genius in a writer who can write so well is such disparate genres. A sad loss.
posted by chinston at 9:59 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd never read any of his books, but Frances was a fave of my wife's (she's going to be devastated by this...), so I tried it and they are awesome. The way he can fit a story for adults and a story for kids into the same words is hilarious.

And Riddley Walker looks awesome, I'll have to try it out.
posted by DU at 9:59 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aw man. I always enjoyed the Frances books as a kid. I'm pretty sure my mother used "Bread and Jam" as a template when ten-year-old me wanted to eat nothing but Cheerios.
posted by notsnot at 9:59 AM on December 14, 2011

i had no idea that frances, emmet otter, and riddley walker came from the same guy. . wow
posted by beefetish at 10:00 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Riddley is one of the books that make me. I read it in college, for a 'Joyce and the Legacy of Modernism' class taught by my mentor and friend. Riddley was the highlight of a complicated and wonderful year, and it grew inside me for years afterward. Still is.

When my son was born, several people who knew of my Riddley love gave him Hoban's children's books as gifts - Frances, of course, but also the weird beautiful tale M.O.L.E. (Massively Overworked Little Earthmover). I count those people wise and good, like the books they gave us.

This is a sad day, but it's a good death if any is: a long life full of hard work and knowing, and now a well-deserved rest. His tern now our tern later.
posted by waxbanks at 10:02 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh dear. RIP Russell Hoban. When I find someone who hasn't read Riddley Walker, I have to fight the urge to grab them by the lapels while impressing upon them the fact that they really, really should read it. It is one of the finest 20th-century English novels. (Ironic, given that it's not written in 20th-century English.)
posted by WPW at 10:03 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you.

You found a new way to try to word the big things and the paper nevvr terned its back on you.

Sleep well with Aunty.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:03 AM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

(I've given away something like eight or ten copies of Riddley - I buy every copy I find - and in the old man's honour I'll give away another this week. Maybe to a kid who needs a darkling read.)

(God I'm sadder than I expected. Thanks for this thread, Jessamyn.)
posted by waxbanks at 10:06 AM on December 14, 2011

If you get a chance to see "Turtle Diary" (difficult, because, as far as I know, it's never been released on DVD), make sure you jump at it. It's an adaptation, written by Harold Pinter, of one of Hoban's novels, and it features Ben Kingsley, Glenda Jackson and Michael Gambon. It's a quiet but brilliant film, and the nexus of Hoban and Pinter is magical.
posted by grumblebee at 10:06 AM on December 14, 2011

Damn, that's sad news. I love Hoban's writing. And for anyone whose knowledge of him is mostly his kids books, and/or Riddley Walker, get thee to a bookshop and buy a copy of Kleinzeit. Think it's maybe my favourite book of his.
posted by Len at 10:10 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


No mention, oddly, in either the wikipedia article about it or the highlighted article from this post, of Riddley Walker as the basis of the language and mythology among the lost children in Mad Max, Beyond the Thunderdome. Is that a connection my husband and I have always assumed all these years? I have recommended that (wonderful, unique) book to anyone who expressed a liking of the movie. Hmm.

As for Frances, I cherish her songs to herself and her things around her. Russell Hoban heard the voices of children and could write for them like few others, maybe Margaret Wise Brown.

Thanks for the post.
posted by emhutchinson at 10:10 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]




(that's one each for Riddley Walker, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, and How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, which it's hard to believe all came from the same imagination)
posted by grimmelm at 10:15 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lorna said to me, 'You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.'

I said, 'What thing is that?'

She said, 'Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don't even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.'

I said, 'If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.'

Lorna said, 'Wel there is a millying and mor.'

I said, 'Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?'

She said, 'Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way.'

posted by fleetmouse at 10:20 AM on December 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


I was getting ready to post a question here because I wanted to finally read that weird dystopian novel written in a weird English, of which I couldn't remember the name or the author. Not really a pleasant way to get my answers. Now I will have to read it...
posted by njohnson23 at 10:21 AM on December 14, 2011

Oh no.

posted by Iridic at 10:21 AM on December 14, 2011


Man, a friend introduced me to him relatively recently, and he kind of blew my mind. I read The Medusa Frequency, which was the sort of book that my pretentious grad-student friends would rave about but was actually good, and then Linger Awhile, which was hands down the weirdest vampire story I've ever read, and I've read a lot of them. One of these days I will have to actually read Riddley Walker.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:23 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by From Bklyn at 10:25 AM on December 14, 2011

'There is a tiger in my room,' said Frances.

'Did he bite you?' said Father.

'No,' said Frances.

'Did he scratch you?' said Mother.

'No,' said Frances.

'Then he is a friendly tiger,' said Father. 'He will not hurt you. Go back to sleep.'
posted by grumblebee at 10:25 AM on December 14, 2011 [11 favorites]

As a parent of a 3 year old, the Frances books continue to impress me with their understanding of children, and understated humor:

“One of the reasons I like bread and jam,” said Frances, “is that it does not slide off your spoon in a funny way.”

“Well, of course,” said Father, “not everyone is fond of soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. But there are other kinds of eggs. There are sunny-side-up and sunny-side-down eggs.”

“Yes,” said Frances. “But sunny-side-up eggs lie on the plate and look up at you in a funny way. And sunny-side down eggs just lie on their stomachs and wait.”

“What about scrambled eggs?” said Father.

“Scrambled eggs fall off the fork and roll under the table,” said Frances.

“I think it’s time for you to go to school now,” said Mother.

posted by leotrotsky at 10:26 AM on December 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

Y'know, this got me thinking of a few of my friends, and wondering, "say, s/he'd really like RIDDLEY WALKER, I wonder if s/he's ever read it?"

I just shot an email out to a few of them telling them that I'd always thought they'd kinda dig it, and if they hadn't read it yet -- well, then, in honor of Mr. Hoban, I was gonna get them a copy. If anyone's in funds, and wants to pay a tribute, that may be a good way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on December 14, 2011


EOJBC is a cultural touchstone in my family
posted by supermedusa at 10:27 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by doctor_negative at 10:27 AM on December 14, 2011


Riddley Walker is brilliant
posted by cosmac at 10:28 AM on December 14, 2011

I bought 'Riddley Walker' for someone just last month. The bookstore guy at the register FLIPPED OUT, because it was one of his top-five favorite novels, and he loved to see someone buying it. We talked about how it changed our views of what a book could be, and how one can play with language.

Also, that Frances was a pistol.

This one hurts.

posted by Ink-stained wretch at 10:29 AM on December 14, 2011

I've never read his grown-up books, but we read at least one Frances book a week for bedtime. I think the kids like Best Friends for Frances best because of the songs, but I love how gossipy and evil A Bargain for Frances is. It's like a kindergarten version of a soap opera. And I will probably be struck by lightning for saying that. But it is soooo much fun to read, if you have just the right amount of venom in your voice. Of course it ends with skipping rope and Life Savers and everything's happy again, so the kids don't go to bed despondent and cynical.
posted by mittens at 10:31 AM on December 14, 2011

Riddley Walker blew my mind in a way few books (Neuromancer, The Name of the Rose, the Alice books) have by completely upending my expectations, convincing me of the reality of its very unreal world and walking me down what I only later realized was a very deliberately crafted path that seemed anything but. (His next book, Pilgermann didn't have quite the same impact, but I still recommend it highly.)

My dream back in '80 or '81 when I first read Riddley was to have Keith Haring collaborate on an illustrated edition. That, to my mind's eye, would have been heavenly.

Ave atque vale, Mr. Hoban.
posted by the sobsister at 10:37 AM on December 14, 2011

Ah, fuck. Well, he sure gave us a lot of very good things to read.

posted by everichon at 10:45 AM on December 14, 2011

Melismata! I too still fantasize about that blue china tea set! We should get together someday and have a lovely tea party. Just saying those words to myself in my head brings back really vivid memories of reading the Frances books. Thank you so much for your joyful little piece of my childhood, Mr. Hoban.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2011

I will raise a Chompo bar in his memorie (and hope no one steals it.)
posted by vespabelle at 10:48 AM on December 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

posted by egypturnash at 10:50 AM on December 14, 2011

Frances, Captain Najork, Riddley Walker, Barbara Strozzi and The Little Brute Family, just off the top of my head. Such mastery, such breadth. Ave atque vale, indeed.

posted by whuppy at 10:54 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by dlugoczaj at 10:55 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by ambrosen at 10:57 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by Sebmojo at 11:04 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:08 AM on December 14, 2011

I have sooo many fond memories of reading the Frances books to my kids. These were the books that they knew so well they could "read" to themselves in pre-school. We've had a love thing for badgers ever since.

posted by readery at 11:09 AM on December 14, 2011

I loved Frances so much. Those gentle, lovely illustrations, too.
posted by Occula at 11:20 AM on December 14, 2011

posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 11:21 AM on December 14, 2011


posted by Madamina at 11:25 AM on December 14, 2011

I had just as much fun reading the Frances books to my daughter as she had listening to them. Maybe more.

Right now, I'm singing "S is for sailboat, T is for tiger, U is for underwear, down in the drier." in a silly Frances voice.

posted by SPUTNIK at 11:58 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, God. Captain Najork! There's even a sequel. Trouble On Thunder Mountain is also wonderful. Need to put Riddley Walker on my to-read list.

posted by mneekadon at 12:00 PM on December 14, 2011

The "Baby Sister for Frances" book was influential in the way I dealt with my parents announcing the impending arrival of my younger sibling. I sure as heck knew to run away a lot farther than the dining room.

When I moved out of my parents' house, they packed up all of our childrens literature. Years later I went back and rescued a handful of truly meaningful books (despite not having kids to read them to). Frances was among them. Cherished.
posted by librarianamy at 12:02 PM on December 14, 2011


Sadness. Riddley Walker was huge for me.
posted by steambadger at 12:08 PM on December 14, 2011

I've been working at a company that's about to bring out a new teen book by Hoban, so found out this morning. Very sad. Extraordinary writer - one of the best, I think, particularly in his way with prose as full of poetry as it was of clarity. Possibly a strange thing to say about the writer of Riddley Walker, but I'm standing by it.

Has no one mentioned Deadsy and Door yet?
posted by Grangousier at 12:21 PM on December 14, 2011

The script to Deadsy.
posted by Grangousier at 12:23 PM on December 14, 2011

Oh damn. The Medusa frequency is a sort of talisman for me. RIP.
posted by dhruva at 12:23 PM on December 14, 2011

I have read many Hoban novels, and today I'm selfishly thankful that I haven't read them all yet. His The Medusa Frequency is my all-time favourite, I have haunted cities across the world seeking, futilely, a copy of Fremder only to have it vanish from my clutching grasp more than thrice, and the Last Visible Dog has come up many, many times in conversation between myself and my best friends.

Here's to the Caws of Art!

posted by Sparx at 12:24 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Fremder, Kleinzeit and Amaryllis, night and day have been Big Books for my life.
posted by FrereKhan at 12:29 PM on December 14, 2011

I read Frances as a small child. Later, when we were cross-country camping, 2 moms and 5 kids in a Volvo station wagon, my mother would read us a chapter from "The Mouse and His Child" some nights before we went to sleep.

As a teen I found "Ridley Walker" and was shocked to learn that it was by the same author. In my 20s I went on to read the "difficult" ones: Pilgerman, Kleinzei, and Boaz-Jachin/Jachin-Boaz.

Fuck me, I'm crying.

posted by benito.strauss at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2011

Metafilter introduced me to Riddley Walker, and for that I am eternally grateful.

posted by Gorgik at 12:56 PM on December 14, 2011


...to the last visible dog.
posted by likeso at 12:57 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nooo, vespabelle beat me to a Chompo bar reference - it's hard to pick a favorite Frances book but I think A Birthday for Frances might just barely win out. This sucks.

posted by naoko at 12:58 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by aught at 1:00 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by aunt_winnifred at 1:03 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by rahnefan at 1:13 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by The otter lady at 1:19 PM on December 14, 2011

Hoban also wrote Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas



That is a hole in my washtub.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:19 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Emmet Otter is a Christmas staple for me.

posted by pemberkins at 1:27 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by motty at 1:54 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by Smart Dalek at 2:03 PM on December 14, 2011

Sounds good, Fui Non Sum, but we'd have to discuss who would bring the blue china set and who would bring the red plastic set. :)
posted by Melismata at 2:13 PM on December 14, 2011

I can't be the only one who liked Riverbottom Nightmare Band better than Emmett's jug band, can I?

posted by jonp72 at 2:20 PM on December 14, 2011

Oh, this makes me sad. Our toddler is obsessed with the Frances books (it starts at dawn, with "Daddy read it Frances book, DADDY READ IT!") and I think they are all so lovely and sarcastic and true, and I have such a sense of the personalities of the badger family, and the first time I read A Bargain for Frances, I didn't just think "Oh, this is a good book for a little kid", I was powerfully struck by the deep truth about human nature and standing up for yourself contained within it, and I kind of wished I had read it when I was little, because I could have used those messages.

What a great writer you must be, to be able to convey all that in a picture book about a badger. Godspeed, Mr. Hoban.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 3:02 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 4:16 PM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

oh, no! Riddley Walker is a touchstone book for my mom and me. I was delighted when I found myself not far from Canterbury a few years back and saw a science fiction bookstore whose front was covered with Green Man/Greanvine icons. (This prompted some more research on Hoban on my part; it turns out his son has written a scholarly article on ringtones (trigger warning: refers to Adorno's hateful piece about jazz))

First we lose Brian Jacques, now this. Who will anthropomorphize badgers for us? (I mean, aside from the writers for Mongrels, who have decided that badgers fill the professional classes)

Thank you for the extra Hobaniana, Jessamyn.

posted by gusandrews at 5:22 PM on December 14, 2011

. for Russell Hoban, who wrote books that I love. And yet I am happy as well, to learn he wrote so much more than I'd known of. Thank you all for the new recommendations.
posted by Songdog at 6:10 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by Cosine at 6:23 PM on December 14, 2011

Here to celebrate the life and books of one of my favorite authors. Ridley Walker has been on my to-read queue since forever, but my family and I have been enjoying the Francis stories so, so much. So much, in fact, that I tracked down a used copy of his out-of-print, but much praised book "Harvey's Hideout". It was very well worth the effort. His writing had a remarkably consistent gentle touch and depth.
posted by dylanjames at 6:39 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by ltracey at 8:05 PM on December 14, 2011

I read Riddley Walker first and then found out about the Frances books only later on in life and now i'll be passing those latter on to my nephews. And for heaven's sake, i've just found out from reading this thread that Captain Najork was one of his.
posted by storybored at 8:32 PM on December 14, 2011

Oh, damn. :(

At university I took a fascinating class called "Home & Homelessness", and one of the texts on the syllabus was The Mouse and His Child. The professor joked that it was the secret decoding text for the class, which was pretty much right on, and I read it about eight times that semester and once a year or so since then. Riddley Walker is another favourite that gets revisited often. Damn, damn, damn.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:50 PM on December 14, 2011

posted by small house at 2:40 AM on December 15, 2011

Russell Hoban provided a truckload of wisdom for every stage of life.
posted by whuppy at 6:19 AM on December 15, 2011

posted by epj at 9:39 AM on December 15, 2011

WOW, both Frances and Deadsy came out of the same mind? I had no idea. (Honestly, I still don't have any idea how one mind could span such a gulf, plus all those other characters and stories, but I guess "he contained multitudes.")

posted by wenestvedt at 10:15 AM on December 15, 2011

Metafilter: We ben the Puter Leat we had the woal worl in our mynd

posted by chavenet at 1:07 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"She larft then she said, 'Riddley there ain't nothing what ain't a tel for you. The wind in the nite the dus on the road even the leases stoan you kick a long in front of you. Even the shadder of that leases stone roaling on or stanning stil its all telling.'

Wel I cant say for cern no mor if I had any of them things in my mynd befor she tol me but ever since then it seams like they all ways ben there. Seams like I ben all ways thinking on that thing in us what thinks us but it dont think like us. Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know what it is. What a way to live.

Thats why I finely come to writing all this down. Thinking on what the idear of us myt be. Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome."

thank you, Russell Hoban, for Riddley Walker, for Frances, for Emmet Otter, for Pilgermann, for the Mouse & his Child, for William Snow & Neaera Duncan, for the Marzipan Pig, for everything...

and thank you, Jessamyn, for making this post.
posted by jammy at 6:56 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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