Obituary: Lillian Hoban

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The Independent Culture
LILLIAN HOBAN was one of America's best-loved illustrators of children's books.

Born Lillian Aberman and brought up in Philadelphia, she always wanted to be an artist, starting classes at the local Graphic Sketch Club at the age of 14 before going on to win a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. Majoring in illustration, it was here she met her husband Russell Hoban, also studying to be an illustrator.

After marriage the couple moved to New York, where Lillian gave up art in order to study dance at the Hanya Holm School and later with Martha Graham. During the 1950s she appeared on television as a dancer and also worked as an instructor in modern dance. But after the birth of her third child she settled down with Russell, who by now had changed to writing, into what was to become a prolific and successful author-illustrator team.

Moving to Wilton, Connecticut, along with four children, a Newfoundland dog and a Maine Coon cat, the Hobans produced a series of best-selling picture books featuring Frances, a small but determined child badger. She is regularly shown having to cope with some of the common problems and dilemmas of childhood, often suggested to the couple from experience with their own children.

In Bedtime for Frances (1960) she makes excuses for not going to sleep, and in A Baby Sister for Frances (1964) she decides to run away (in fact, for only a few inches under the family table) when she believes her baby sister Gloria is getting all the attention. In A Birthday for Frances (1968), she suffers from jealousy when the family celebrates the same sister's birthday.

These plots could have provided yet one more dreary addition to those self-consciously "bibliotherapeutic" titles solemnly designed at the time to help children adjust to various difficult situations. But the affection and high good-humour running through the Frances books is immediately recognisable in Russell's text and Lillian's affectionate and gentle black- and-white pencil drawings. Frances is every human child living in an ordinary house surrounded by familiar domestic objects. She is also a badger, and to that extent outside the class, colour and gender issues that can limit a young reader's easy identification with a purely human picture-book character. Most important of all, she is drawn with complete conviction.

Lillian once wrote, "When I sit down in the studio to work on a book, I have exactly the same feeling of concentration and complete engagement that I had as a child when I first started to paint and draw." This total devotion to the task shows particularly in her attention to detail and the way in which Frances's body language is made to indicate exactly how she is feeling. Children on both sides of the Atlantic have loved these stories, still in print today.

In 1967 Lillian illustrated her husband's masterpiece, The Mouse and his Child, using colour for the cover but reverting to ink drawings in the text. Her pictures add wonderfully to this sombre but memorable story, with the outsize villain Manny the Rat menacingly overshadowing the father and son couple who finally win through against the odds.

By now the Hobans, who had moved to London in 1969, were having their own problems. They divorced in 1975, and soon after Lillian began drawing and writing stories about a chimpanzee and his little sister. The last of this series, Arthur's Birthday Party, is due to be published at the end of this year, joining the other hundred or so titles written and/or illustrated by Lillian Hoban over a period of nearly 40 years.

A frequent award-winner, she leaves behind one of the most distinguished lists of any contemporary American illustrator. She will also be remembered with gratitude by the many schoolchildren she encouraged to read and write through her participation in the National Arts Club creative writing programme.

Lillian Aberman, illustrator: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 18 May 1925; married 1944 Russell Hoban (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1975); died New York 17 July 1998.