1974

Poor Richard in France

By F.N. Monjo

Original Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Digital Publisher: Not Available

Reading Level: Not Available

Gary D. Schmidt writes:

In 1974, the genre of biography in children’s literature was struggling to define its purposes and its place in the canon. Not to mention its processes. For most of the twentieth century, biographies for children had been written toward the school library market, and though publishers had seen this field as a steady market, it was certainly not an especially lucrative market. Nor was biography a genre often lauded among Newbery Award contenders. The authors and illustrators who worked in the genre were frequently working to formula, since most biographies were written within a series format determined by the publisher. This meant that the level of writing, the organization of the text, the length of chapters and the book, and perhaps even the opening scenes were determined not by the writer but by editors who had pre-determined the shape of the series. Many of the writers were not particularly well known: In the Childhood of Famous Americans series published by Bobbs-Merrill, for example, the bestselling author was Augusta Stevenson, whose name has today faded. In the Landmark series, though, writers such as Sterling North and James Daugherty contributed volumes—writers whose works are still being read.

But still, the format was pre-determined.

And the field of children’s literature had still to determine a huge question: Can a biography use fictional material to engage a child reader and still be an authentic work of nonfiction?

The Childhood of Famous Americans series unabashedly declared, Yea! The premise behind these books was that one could discern later greatness through early deeds, and so ninety—no kidding—ninety percent of the books’ texts were fictionalized childhood histories; the last ten pages or so followed the book’s subject into adulthood, and those pages tended to stay faithful to history. But the fictional stories of childhood, the editors argued, drew child readers in.

But in the 1970s, another answer came with Jean Fritz, who argued in short, incredibly witty, and engaging biographies that history and biography could draw child readers in through a careful use of delightful and powerful historical facts. Thus, a child reader might remember the “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech of Patrick Henry if she knew that one listener on the balcony above Patrick Henry got so excited that he spat a huge wad of chewing tobacco down into the crowd. The apt detail made the larger story more real, and more vivid.

Thus, everything in a biography, Fritz argued, had to be documentable. Everything had to be verifiable.

Now, enter, F.N. Monjo’s Poor Richard in France

Immediately, the book broke expected molds. Though by 1974 Monjo had written nine biographies for children, he did not write for the specifications of a series. The book was illustrated not by a lesser-known artist but by Brinton Turkle, who had already won a Caldecott Honor for Thy Friend, Obadiah (1970). Unlike the biographies of the Landmark series, say, Poor Richard in France made no attempt to give a full-life biography of its subject but only a small glimpse of a larger life. Like Fritz, Monjo believed that the tiny but perfect detail could illuminate and engage, and he would include many of these. Unlike Fritz, he did not believe that everything in the book had to be documentable; instead, he could use fiction to couch true details and give them both context and life.

And it is that belief that led to the greatness of Poor Richard in France.

When Benjamin Franklin went to Paris to ask for help for his fledgling nation, he brought with him his two grandsons: William Temple Franklin, who functioned as his secretary, and the seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin Bache. Monjo chose to tell the story of these years through the eyes—and through the language—of this seven-year-old boy, who is close to the age of Monjo’s intended readers. For Fritz, the problem here would be that the words of this boy cannot be documented; thus Benny’s narration is a fiction by Monjo. But for Monjo, the use of this narrator provided an opportunity to focus his story:  He would not tell all of the life of Benjamin Franklin; he would not even tell all of Franklin’s complex diplomatic maneuverings in the court of Louis XVI. Instead, he would focus on those parts of these years that would have fascinated and engaged a young boy with only a slight understanding of the political wranglings going on around him, but with at least an inkling of the import of his grandfather’s quest.

And so instead of the history of Franklin the diplomat only, we get what interests or puzzles or fascinates Benny as Franklin pursues his life in Paris.

All the ladies in Paris
want to kiss Grandfather.
But Grandfather says it isn’t so easy
to kiss French ladies.
Here’s why you can’t kiss them
on the lips. It’s impolite.
And you can’t kiss them
on the cheeks, either,
because they wear
big bright circles of rouge there.
That means you have to kiss them
on the neck!
So that’s what Grandfather does. 

Or this:

Temple was shocked
when Grandfather said
he wouldn’t be surprised to see
his face, someday, painted on
a vase de nuit.
Temple wouldn’t tell me
what a vase de nuit is,
so I had to ask Grandfather.
Grandfather laughed and said,
“A vase de nuit, Benny,
is what we call a chamber pot.”

For Benny, the story of Benjamin Franklin is the story of how the ladies in Paris love him, how his face is painted everywhere, how he loves to play chess, and take an air bath at sea, and listen to gossip—as when Madame Helvétius wiped up Poupou’s mess with her shift. (“‘What’s a shift, Temple?’ I said. Temple wouldn’t tell me. But Grandfather did.”) Benny loves the story of Franklin receiving a scepter from King Louis set with diamonds, and the story of Marie Antoinette stopping her card play long enough to speak to Franklin about the Revolution. Here are the details that fascinate children, Monjo argued, and which are so often removed from the biographies they receive.

But these are not just random details, and neither are they merely decorative. Sometimes they carry great weight and convey to Benny—and to the young reader—the meaning of what Franklin is about. Of these, the most important is the old blue velvet coat that Benny brings to Franklin after an air bath. 

“No, no, Benny,” says Grandfather.

“Not that one. I’m saving it for later.”

“That one” is the coat that Franklin wore to the court of George III, where he was ridiculed and mocked as he warned of war. Benny isn’t sure what Franklin is saving the coat for, but later he understands: Franklin wears it to the French court when the alliance is to be signed that ensures the success of the American Revolution. Benny recognizes that there is a little revenge here, but in a deeper sense he understands the optimism and hope that has marked his grandfather’s belief in the ultimate success of the new nation.

Perhaps the greatest success of Poor Richard in France is Monjo’s mastery of his narrator’s voice. Benny is a seven-year-old child, and there is much that occupies him beyond the diplomacy of his grandfather. He is surprised by much of what he sees—cannon, French ladies—and a bit bored by some—Latin, a new school in Switzerland. And there is much that he does not understand and that his cousin is reluctant to reveal. But it is through his naïve and slightly innocent eyes that we see Franklin the patriot, who warns kings of war, who is overjoyed at the birth of a new nation, who promises that America will be a country without monarchs. 

And complementing this, and perhaps most moving of all—and again, this comes through in Benny’s voice—Franklin is portrayed as Benny’s grandfather. He is eccentric—the air baths, kissing French ladies on their necks—slightly irreverent, willing to tell Benny things that other adults will not, and as illustrated in the opening and closing spreads, willing to spend time with his grandson playing chess. It is a loving and gentle relationship that shows yet another side of Franklin, Monjo might say, that does not always make it into conventional biographies.

Gary D. Schmidt is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a National Book Award Young People’s Literature Finalist in 2011 for Okay for Now. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by.

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Children’s Books Finalists That Year:

  • Alice Childress for A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich
  • Vera and Bill Cleaver for The Whys and Wherefores of Littabelle Lee
  • Julia Cunningham for The Treasure is the Rose
  • Bette Greene for Summer of My German Soldier
  • Kristin Hunter for Guests in the Promised Land
  • E.L. Konigsburg for A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver
  • Norma Fox Mazer for A Figure of Speech
  • F.N. Monjo for Poor Richard in France
  • Harve Zemach for Duffy and the Devil

Children’s Books Winner That Year: Eleanor Cameron for The Court of the Stone Children

Judges That Year: Clifton Fadiman, Nancy Larrick, George A. Woods

The Year in Literature: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox won the Newbery Medal.

More Information: 

  • Monjo is perhaps best remembered for his 1970 book The Drinking Gourd.
  • His family owned The Monjo Company, fur traders in America from the time of the Civil War.

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