Sunday, February 17

Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly

also: Fancy Nancy and The Boy From Paris &
Fancy Nancy at the Museum
all by Jane O'Connor
illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser
HarperCollins 2008

What began as a cute picture book for the pink-and-sparkly girly-girl set is now officially a brand, a series, and an inferior product. This, the third Fancy Nancy book, was released the same day as two I-Can-Read titles that are trading on the Fancy Nancy name and familiarity to rake in more bucks from the market.

Let's deal with the picture book for a moment. Nancy and her best friend Bree are all about the butterflies. They're typically obsessed with them to the point that Bree is going to make her birthday a butterfly party. They plan a cake, make invitations, get their outfits ready...

Oh, no! Mom suddenly realized that it her parent's 50th anniversary on the same day! Fancy Nancy is going to have to go to her grandparent's party instead. And so she has to go and tell her friend Bree the bad news.

Up to this point the book has been pretty clunky in its exposition. It doesn't feel like a story so much as little two-page set pieces for Nancy and Bree to pose in. But when we get to the spread where Nancy is apologizing to Bree we get an interesting illustration. The text says Bree is devastated by the news but it's Nancy falling all over herself, doubled over in tears. Bree has a look that says "Yeah, like you really care. This is just like you, Nancy, you big self-centered fake!" Is this a mistake in the illustration or is Bree really just pissed that she's being dumped from the story half way.

That's right, now we have an entirely different book on our hands. Bree is history.

Nancy mopes her way through the house, stops talking to people, and generally shows off just how much a brat she really is. And her parents put up with it. They get to the grandparent's place and no sooner is she off the train but suddenly it's as if she'd never been upset. The party is great and afterward they go to a butterfly exhibit at the zoo and, wow! This wasn't such a bad trip after all!

Does Nancy call Bree on her birthday? Does she find something perfectly fancy and butterfly-like to bring back to her friend? No, Nancy finds a butterfly whose color matches the color of her proposed party outfit and thinks it's the grandest of them all.

Selfish brat.

The writing is bad, the story changes midway, and what's with all the dropping of French words and phrases anyway? Well, that, my friends, has everything to do with the Fancy Nancy Brand I-Can-Read Title Fancy Nancy and the Boy From Paris. See, in order to keep the gravy train rolling they need to milk everything fancy for all it's worth. A few French words here and there might let a girl believe she's got some fanciness to her, but now we've got a real live Parisian boy to help her build her fanciness quotient. But wait, he's just a boy, and maybe he isn't so fancy after all. I mean, he likes books about cowboys, and he isn't at all interested in all things fancy. Oh well, lesson leanred. Next!

Fancy Nancy at the Museum allows our Francofile snob to get a little kulchur and some more excuses to work in her French vocabulary. In a lot of ways these beginning readers read a bit more like outlines for possible picture books and don't stand up to the same quality (in my opinion) as many other books in this series. Again, it all feels a little too calculated to be genuine. I'm not necessarily going to fault the parties involved for wanting to make a buck, but when the only way to do it drags down what little good you had before then perhaps it's time to put on the brakes and take stock. Yes, there is a market for girly-girls, girls who like pink and purple and dressing up and sparkles. But character alone can't carry an empty plot, and there's more to fancy than borrowing some French and reinforcing snobbish stereotypes.

The first, and to a lesser extend the second, Fancy Nancy picture books gave us a girl whose fanciness was a fancy of imagination. She would dress up for a dinner out, and teach her family how to be fancy, and in the end her fanciness gave her a dose of humility. Or she would covet a fancy dog, and then take care of a fancy dog, only to learn that fanciness isn't always the best quality to look for. Nicely put lessons in both. What I'm seeing now is a girl forcing the world into her fancy box and when it doesn't fit, oh well. The lesson of Bonjour Butterfly is lost on me -- is it "dump your friends when something fancier comes along?" And as for the beginning reader books, is it really such a good idea to be dropping French words onto those readers who my be having a hard enough time with English?

I hope sales on these books tank. I hope Harper takes a long, hard look at what they are doing with Fancy Nancy and either back off or find a way to return to the quality and the original spirit of the first book.

I never thought I'd see the day I'd be using the words "quality" and "original" in the same sentence as the words Fancy Nancy.


Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of Fancy Nancy before this post (the only girl in this house in now 10), but I'm grieved to hear the latest sad news about the I Can Read books, which I loved in my own childhood and rediscovered when my three were young. Thanks for a bluntly honest review.

I'd like to think that Ursula Nordstom, Little Bear, Syd Hoff, and Millicent Selsam are not pleased.

Anonymous said...

Oh, my. Someone else told me that this one was the *best* of the Fancy Nancy cannon. I still haven't seen it, but I imagine our library copy will be coming in soon. (The demand for Fancy Nancy is at fever-pitch levels here, so I have to buy them whether they're good or not.)

Susan Moorhead said...

Children's writers are getting way too cheery. I miss the old peculiar ones stomping about New England or someplace bleak, writing about children who could hold a thought in their heads.
Children's writer sites are also insanely cheerful sunny places and they are all frighteningly social. What ever happened to the cranks in ratty old clothes and lots of cats and weedy yards?

Anonymous said...

WOW....such negative criticism of a childs' book. Imagine a book leading little ones to use their imagination....

oh and btw the moral of the story is family first....not to mention sometimes you can't always have your own way but you make the best of it and you just may find you have fun anyways. I think this is a darling book and love reading it to my 3 girls and i so hope there are many more to this series.

david elzey said...

It always amuses me to see someone surprised that someone would even THINK to give a "child's book" a negative review... as if books for children were somehow beyond criticism.

As a book for children, this one is badly constructed, poorly plotted, and shows that somewhere along the way someone saw dollar signs instead of writing quality when they green-lit this title. The first book in this series was carefully written and plotted by comparison to this much-inferior product.

In a "family first" argument you would need to establish that this is going to be the central conflict of the story from the beginning. You don't spend a good third of a book developing a friendship between two girls and then dump it for a family gathering full of characters who aren't developed at all. In order to make the two halves of this book work the story would need to circle around to the beginning and show the reader that the friendship was still important, that family sometimes has to come first, and that the poor little girl left behind wasn't totally forgotten.

This book isn't darling, it's terrible, and I continually learn a lot from people who insist on defending it.