By Emily Clark
A rich imagination, a childhood love of reading, and an early talent for illustrations led Lillian Hoban to become one of children’s literature’s most beloved artists of the 20th century. Hoban made a name for herself with her “I Can Read” books and the stories of Frances the badger. Though she was born in Philadelphia, worked in New York, and resided for a time in London, Hoban found a peaceful retreat in the town of Wilton, Connecticut.
A Childhood Love for the Arts
The youngest of three girls, Hoban was born in 1925 to a family which valued and embraced the arts. She grew up reading with her sisters and visiting local libraries with her parents. From a young age she knew she wanted to be an illustrator, busying herself with crayons and pastels and imitating the comics from the Sunday newspapers. Hoban attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Philadelphia Museum School of Art and was a frequent member of the Graphic Sketch Club, where she met her husband, Russell Hoban. After marrying in 1944, the couple moved to New York.
An artist in every form of the word, Hoban also showed remarkable talent as a dancer. Once in New York, she abandoned art for a time to study dance at the Hanya Holm School for a decade and later teach dance in various studios in New York and Connecticut. Hoban danced professionally throughout the 1950s, even performing with the modern American dancer and composer, Martha Graham.
Husband and Wife Team Pens Frances the Badger
As the Hobans’ family grew, they moved from New York to Norwalk and then Wilton. In Connecticut, the prolific artist began writing short stories, basing them on the childhood experiences of her four children and their friends, though she never lost her love for artwork. In the early 1960s, Russell published the children’s book Herman the Loser for which Lillian provided the illustrations, thus beginning a ten-year literary collaboration that produced 26 co-written books.
A series of books about a mischievous badger named Frances propelled the Hobans to success. Based on a little girl from their Norwalk neighborhood, Frances debuted in 1960 in the children’s book, Bedtime for Frances. Though another illustrator contributed the drawings, Lillian Hoban’s drawings appeared three years later in the second book of the series, Bread and Jam for Frances, and won her a loyal following. Four more “Frances” books followed, penned and illustrated by this husband-and-wife team, along with two dozen more children’s stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including The Little Brute Family, The Mouse and His Child, and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Emmet Otter received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1972. Kirkus Review praised it, saying, “The Hobans, as usual, know what makes kids kick.”
Finding Success with Arthur the Chimpanzee
Though the Hobans’ careers were a success, their marriage was not. Several years after their move to London in 1969, the couple divorced and Lillian Hoban returned to Wilton with their children. There, she accomplished much on her own as a writer and illustrator, specifically with the “I Can Read” early childhood series. Her stories about Arthur the chimpanzee and his little sister Violet—in addition to her books Joe and Betsy the Dinosaur and Silly Tilly’s Thanksgiving—mirrored some of the same topics she and her husband addressed in the Frances books.
In addition to her individual series, Hoban also collaborated as an illustrator for other writers, including Johanna Hurwitz and Miriam Cohen. A Dell Publishing review for No Good in Art praises both Cohen and Hoban, saying, “Once again Miriam Cohen and Lillian Hoban share their insight and empathy in a book young readers (and young artists) will respond to with unqualified enthusiasm.”
A Lasting Contribution to Children’s Literature
In later years, Hoban became involved in community activities in Wilton, specifically through the Wilton Library and the National Arts Club’s writing program for school-aged children, sharing her love of the arts and never losing her passion for drawing. “When I am writing, I like writing best, and when I am drawing, I like drawing best,” she once said. “But probably what I like better than anything is just messing around with color.”
Throughout her life, Lillian Hoban contributed her talents to nearly one hundred books with her husband Russell and other writers, earning many awards and securing herself a place as one of the country’s best-loved authors and illustrators. Having suffered from heart failure, she died at age 73 in July 1998 at Manhattan’s New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Emily Clark is a freelance writer and an English and Journalism teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge.