Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Review of Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen and Barry Moser

I often caution beginning picture book writers to avoid rhyme, especially since they tend to attempt to channel Seuss. It takes true poetic mastery to avoid writing in rhyme that calls too much attention to itself and clonks at the end of every line. Fortunately, Denise Doyen knows what she's doing.

In this mousely epic, we learn of a little mouse named Jam who is bold and curious and full of mischief. The elders of his tribe notice his antics and warn him, white beards quivering, that his approach to life isn't nearly cautious enough and will get him into big trouble. Heedless Jam skitters off along the lake's edge and—gets into big trouble.

I'm not fond of cautionary tales, but this one is told with great glee. The tone verges on tongue-in-cheek, which I think redeems it. Best of all is Doyen's use of rhythm and rhyme, especially some well-chosen made-up words with a distinctly mouse-ish feel. Here's a sample, the beginning of the story:
Once upon a twice,
In the middle of the nice,
The moon was on the rice
And the Mice were scoutaprowl...
They runtunnel through the riddle—
Secret ruts hid inbetwiddle—
But one mousling jams the middle!
Whilst he goofiddles, others howl:
"Who's the holdup? What's the matter?"
Night's qui-etiquette is shattered!
Children will relate to "riskarascal" Jam, who thinks the grown-ups are no fun and are overreacting with their numerous "preycautions." For their part, parents and teachers will enjoy reading Once Upon a Twice out loud; it rolls off the tongue much like Margaret Mahy's recent book, Bubble Trouble.

Barry Moser's art tends to be dark and ponderous, but here he turns his darkness to good use, telling a mouse story set entirely in the night beside a lake, with a great moon shining overhead. Young readers will see threats, along with midnight beauty, that Jam and his relations are too small to observe. Secondary characters such as frogs and turtles act as witnesses to Jam's foolishness and adventures.

There's something literary about this book, which stands out in a crop of newly published picture books that are trying too hard to be commercial. I recommend Once Upon a Twice mostly because of Doyen's lovingly crafted language, but then, the story is also a lot of fun!

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