Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Think Mice Are Rather Nice

Some years ago when I was teaching first grade, I posted Rose Fyleman's classic poem about mice on the wall. I remember one little boy, a kid who thought of himself as very cool, really fell in love with that poem. He used to stand there and read it to himself each morning.

What is it about mice? If we think too hard about it, they're invasive rodents, pests that call for traps and even exterminators. (Hint: Use peanut butter, not cheese.) But they're also awfully cute, with their babyish faces and small, clever bodies. They kind of look like little kids... And of course, there you have it. Which no doubt explains the numerous children's books about anthropomorphized mice!

I was particularly intrigued to note that two very famous children's authors came out with books featuring mice this spring—Lois Lowry and Cynthia Voigt, to be precise. Both of these authors are known for their serious, award-winning work for older middle grade readers. Lois Lowry is the author of the amazing book, The Giver, which won the Newbery in 1994, and of Number the Stars, which won the Newbery in 1990. Cynthia Voigt wrote the also-amazing Tillerman series, including Dicey's Song, the Newbery Award winner in 1983, and A Solitary Blue, a Newbery Honor book in 1984.

More recently, Lowry followed a string of serious books with a giddy tongue-in-cheek fairy tale, The Birthday Ball. And now there's this mouse book. Is she actually... having fun, our Ms. Lowry? And Voigt, of the rather dark, character-driven books—she wrote a mousy confection, too?

But I digress just a titch (mouse-like). Let me tell you about these books.

Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Eric Rohmann (April 12, 2011)

This is a sweet book, with a delightful main character in the form of Hildegarde, leader and even pastor of a clan of church mice. The story starts off with Hildegarde reprimanding a flighty young mother mouse for having another litter—too many mice, and the humans will catch on and call for a Great X, an extermination. (No actual mention of birth control, though!) We meet Hildegarde's friend Roderick, who appears to have a crush on Hildegarde. We also meet the thoroughly sniffy Lucretia, who would love to take over Hildegarde's position. And we get to explore the church building and spy on humans such as Father Murphy through mouse eyes, which is very entertaining.
Hildegarde rose from her night nest behind the expression pedal of the pipe organ. She always rose very early, particularly on Sundays, when the organist arrived to practice well before anyone else had entered the church. Sometimes Hildegarde scurried away just as he came up the stairs to the choir loft. But she had never been seen, and he had never noticed her small nest there, just behind the pedal where he placed his foot when he wanted a dramatic increase in volume. Sometimes the expression pedal was called the "swell" pedal because it caused the music to swell gloriously. But Hildegarde thought that was a rather vulgar term.

The Great X isn't Hildegarde's only fear for her people. A more immediate worry is the Blessing of the Animals, an event that will be moved indoors if it rains. An event bringing with it dozens of cats!

Hildegarde is clever, pragmatic, and likable as a main character who provides the narrative viewpoint. It probably won't occur to young readers that if she were human, she would be fifty or sixty. She comes up with plans for rescuing her clan from the various threats that hang over them and implements those plans nicely, with a few twists and turns along the way.

Hildegarde's character, the adventurous escapes from peril, the humor, and the mouse-eye view of the church are definitely the strengths of this book.

A couple of plot turns seem unconvincing, however, including a hint of romance and a final twist that tosses in fantasy elements not previously established. The scene also has Hildegarde acting in a way that seems a little out of character, aside from the general fact that she's courageous. You may find the ending reminiscent of Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1945 Newbery winner) and even Elizabeth Coatsworth's tale, The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1931 Newbery Medalist).

Religion plays a relatively significant role in this book set in a church, so I suppose Bless This Mouse might be less appealing to families who aren't religious. Of course, you can always think of it as simply another setting and subculture in that regard.

I should note that this is a slim book at 152 pages, which will make it a good pick for younger or reluctant readers. I'm guessing 8 to 10 is about the right age range, or you can use it as a read-aloud with second graders.

Bless This Mouse has a few glitches, but it's well crafted and fun. I especially like Hildegarde's solution to those horrible sticky traps. (I used one once while I was living in Chicago. Never again!) Give this cheery little book a try and see what you think!

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Louise Yates (January 11, 2011)

Although humor gleams through this book like the stars which so attract the title character's attention, Voigt quickly moves past cute to write a character-driven story, a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of life and what it means to be—okay, well, not human so much as mouse, but still, Fredle is a hero for the ages.

He reminds me of the boy Jonas in Lowry's The Giver in some ways (ironically)—the daydreamer and visionary who comes to question tradition and go his own way. Fredle has a natural curiosity, a little more than most mice. "Fredle was curious about curiosity, and he did wonder if mice weren't right to be afraid of it." The only other mouse that seems to share his feelings is his girl cousin Axle. Together the two get into mischief in the house where they live. Their family of kitchen mice is conservative in its approach to danger and good health: The word "went" is used as a verb to describe dying and as a noun to describe the state of death in Fredle's clan. In fact, if a mouse is ill or injured, he is put out on the kitchen floor to die so that he won't endanger the others. Unfortunately, when Fredle and Axle find a Peppermint Pattie in the pantry and eat the entire thing, he gets so sick that his family thinks he's dying and shoves him out into the pantry. The cat would be happy to deal with him, but the human Missus can't quite bring herself to kill a baby mouse and carries him outside instead, dumping him in the backyard.

Talk about a fish out of water! Fredle isn't even sure what he's looking at half the time. It doesn't help that at this point he is still pretty sick. Having discovered dirt and grass, he encounters the lattice around the porch, a new hiding place:

...Fredle made his way cautiously toward the bright white wall. He pushed his way through the stalks, trying not to let his nails dig into the soft floor, because how could he know that his feet wouldn't sink so deeply into the softness that he'd be trapped? He trod as lightly as he could—and, being a mouse, that was very lightly—until he arrived at the wall with openings all along it as small as mouseholes, and some of them so low he could easily peer through.
He saw a shadowy light beyond the wall, and the odd floor smell was stronger in there. Nothing moved that he could see or hear, although it wasn't the same kind of empty quiet as a nighttime kitchen. Waiting beyond the white wall there seemed to be a dark, quiet territory, crowded with shadows and smells and sounds too soft and fine even for his ears, as if it was inhabited by creatures much smaller even than a mouse.
Most importantly, it smelled and sounded and felt safe, which the green stalks and bright air behind him did not. So Fredle scrambled up through one of the holes and tumbled down into darkness.

Note that none of these things (the dirt, the grass, and the lattice) are named at this point, so that readers have to figure out what Fredle's seeing right along with him. Thanks to Voigt's craft, Fredle's experiences feel very real. You will no doubt get a sense for what it's like to be a small, vulnerable animal out in the big world as you read this book. (You may just find your whiskers twitching!)

Little by little Fredle learns more about the backyard. He is sort of assisted by a field mouse named Bardo, though he quickly realizes that this new mouse is holding out on him and has a fairly limited interest in Fredle's survival. The compost heap holds food treasures for Fredle to nibble, but he must watch out for owls and other predators. Bardo's sister Neldo ends up being more helpful, as well as more open to getting to know Fredle.

Fredle also has encounters with the dogs; one of them, Sadie, is fairly friendly. And he avoids the cats, who are decidedly unfriendly. Besides which, Fredle gets to see the stars. He loves the stars!

But one night Fredle finds the garbage and is investigating the sweetness at the bottom of an almost-empty ice cream carton when he is captured by the Rowdy Boys, a crew of raccoons who save him to eat later.

The raccoons are one of Voigt's best creations. They keep Fredle prisoner for a few days, and it becomes clear that their leader, Captain Rilf, enjoys the mouse's company, if only because Fredle is nearly as smart as he is, unlike the other raccoons. But true to his nature, Rilf does plan to eat Fredle eventually, and Fredle must figure out how to escape and make his way back home. The odd little relationship between Fredle and Rilf is just one of the many nice touches in this book. And watch for the way the raccoons laugh; even better, note how Fredle picks up their style of laughing and takes it back home with him, to the astonishment of the other mice!

When Fredle does get back into the house, it is not to stay. He is not the same mouse he used to be. He meets the cellar mice first. To his surprise, they live in a sort of boring utopia free from predators. And Fredle's family really doesn't know what to make of their prodigal son, who is no longer amenable to every single one of their traditions.

On a poignant note, the formerly bold Axle has had an adventure of her own, but her reaction to the experience is far different from Fredle's.

Of course, one of the issues facing writers who anthropomorphize animals is how far to go with it. Voigt's mice are the perfect balance of very typical animal behaviors and human-like personalities. For example, the mice who live in the barn are stoic about the black snake who lives there, too. (Bardo remarks philosophically that the snake only eats one mouse every so often, so it's no big deal.)

And then there's Sadie, who is such a dog, playful and loyal and a little dense. Fredle helps her out at one point, and she later helps him, too.

All kinds of things happen, weaving in and out of the young mouse's world. When the human baby gets sick, Sadie worries a great deal, and Fredle is astonished to see that the baby comes home again, healed—as opposed to being left out on the human equivalent of the pantry floor to be "went." It's all rather intricate, considering the apparent simplicity of a mouse's life. Among other things, Fredle's understanding of the meaning of "home" changes along the way. His initial impulse is nothing more than to get back inside the house with his family, but eventually his hopes broaden even as his literal horizon has broadened.

I suppose this is a book for thoughtful children, as descriptions such as the one excerpted above take a little patience to read. But really, I think "becoming Fredle" might fascinate any reader but the most reluctant.

To tell you the truth, I'm not usually a fan of talking-animal books. But this one really got me. Fredle's adventures and evolution are just that good.


The following is a list of some of the many nice mouse books available in children's literature:

Picture Books

--Anatole (and sequels) by Eve Titus, illustrated by Paul Galdone
--Angelina Ballerina and sequels by Katharine Holabird, illustrated by Helen Craig
--Beatrix Potter's mouse stories, including The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, The Tale of Johnny Townmouse, and The Story of Miss Moppet
--City Mouse, Country Mouse by Aesop—various illustrators, perhaps most notably Jan Brett
--If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond
--Kevin Henkes' mouse stories, including Julius the Baby of the World, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, and Lilly's Big Day; also Sheila Rae the Brave, Wemberly Worried, Owen, Chrysanthemum, A Weekend with Wendall, and Chester's Way (fantastic books, every single one!)
--Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk
--The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Caldecott winner 2010)
--The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear by Don Wood
--Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
--Maisy (and sequels) by Lucy Cousins
--Mice Twice by Joseph Low
--Mouse Mess by Linnea Riley
--Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh (and sequels)
--The Princess Mouse, retold by Aaron Shepard, illustrated by Leonid Gore
--The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe
--The Sugar Mouse Cake by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham (out of print and hard to find, but worth it)
--A Visitor for Bear (and sequels) by Bonnie Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
--Whose Mouse Are You? by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego

Easy Readers

--Geronimo Stilton series, starting with Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye
--The King, the Mouse, and the Cheese by Nancy Gurney, illustrated by Eric Gurney (a classic!)
--Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel

Middle Grade Fiction

--Babymouse series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
--Basil of Baker Street (series) by Eve Titus
--Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos, by Robert Lawson
--The Black Paw, etc. (Spy Mice series) by Heather Vogel Frederick, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
--Miss Bianca and other books by Margery Sharp (see also the Disney movie, The Rescuers)
--The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban, illustrated by David Small (a classic, rather somber, about two clockwork mice)
--The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Ralph S. Mouse, and Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
--A Mouse Called Wolf, Martin's Mice, and The Mouse Butcher by Dick King-Smith
--Poppy by Avi, illustrated by Brian Floca
--Redwall and other books in the series by Brian Jacques
--The Sands of Time by Michael Hague
--Stuart Little by E.B. White
--The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
--Tucker's Countryside by George Seldon, illustrated by Garth Williams

Young Adult

--Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman (graphic novels about the Holocaust)

And of course, that's not counting mice who are strong secondary characters, such as Reepicheep in the Narnia books and Willie Fieldmouse in Lawson's Rabbit Hill. Plus movie and cartoon mice like Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame and his alter-ego, Itchy of the Simpsons' "Itchy and Scratchy Show," not to mention all those mice in Disney's Cinderella and Mickey Mouse. (I won't get into their cousins the rats except to give a shout-out to Ratatouille.)

Face it, our culture has quite the love affair with fictional mice! Perhaps it's only fitting that the very talented Lois Lowry and Cynthia Voigt have chosen to add to the mouse canon.

Mouse Book Suggestions from the Comments

--Jean Van Leeuwen's Lost Treasure series, starting with The Great Cheese Conspiracy (middle grade fiction)
--A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole (MG)
--mouse characters in Felice Holman's Cricket Winter, which was reissued a few years ago (MG)
--Ernest and Celestine picture books by Gabrielle Vincent
--mice in And Then There Were Gnomes, #2 in the MG graphic novel series Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye, by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Stephanie Yue
--Mouse Goes Out and Mouse Has Fun, early readers by Phyllis Root, illustrated by James Croft
--Ned Mouse Breaks Away, a surreal little MG by Tim Wynne-Jones, illustrated by Duran Petricic
--mice in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien (MG)
--the Tumtum and Nutmeg series by Emily Bearn (Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall and The Rose Cottage Tales)

Feel free to list your favorite mouse books in the comments if I've missed them.

Note: I requested copies of Lowry's and Voigt's books from the Amazon Vine program.


Anonymous said...

Anthropomorphized animals have never been a favorite of mine but I can usually make an exception for mice, particularly in picture books. They are awfully cute. :) That Lois Lowry book looks fun.

Incidentally we had a mouse invasion right at Christmas and my husband discovered the quickest way to catch them is with my chocolate covered peanut butter balls. Never has a trap worked so fast. PB cups would probably have the same effect.

Anonymous said...

Mice are so very much less cute after you have been up all night scrubbing out your kitchen because they've invaded. I found myself cheering for the cats in all mouse-centred books after that experience!

Brian Jacques' Redwall books are about more animals than just mice, but mice always play a prominent role, especially in the earlier ones. His Mariel Gullwhacker is one of my all-time favorite female characters, human or mouse!

LaurieA-B said...

When you say Lois Lowry and mouse, my mind jumps to her hilarious novel The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline. The mouse in that book is, sadly, a corpse. It's my favorite Lowry book, though I am also extremely fond of Anastasia Krupnik.

Middle-grade fiction: I love Jean Van Leeuween's series about three mice--Marvin, Raymond, and Fats--in New York, beginning with The Great Cheese Conspiracy.

Jennifer said...

We had a mini mouse invasion in our library - they must have had a nest in the ceiling, b/c we found mouse corpses on top of tables, where they wouldn't have been able to climb. I kept thinking of them falling on my head while I was doing storytime...

I like Gabrielle Vincent's Ernest and Celestine picture books. Ernest is an adult bear and Celestine is a little girl mouse. This made perfect sense to me as a child. Henry Cole recently wrote a more serious mouse story that would fit with those you've reviewed, Nest for Celeste. I think Felice Holman's Cricket Winter would go well with Fredle, although the mice are secondary characters.

Bigfoot said...

Great list! There are also some very funny mice in AND THEN THERE WERE GNOMES by Colleen AF Venable, the second comic in the GUINEA PIG, PET SHOP PRIVATE EYE series.

Bigfoot said...

I just remembered Phyllis Root's early readers, MOUSE GOES OUT and MOUSE HAS FUN. There's also the middle grade novel, NED MOUSE BREAKS AWAY by Tim Wynne-Jones.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks for all the great suggestions, and for the mouse invasion stories. I think the library one is my favorite. Now, if those little corpses turned into zombies, you'd have a book!

Not sure I could part with chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, though, even to vanquish the mice...

Karen S. Scott said...

How about Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? I loved that one when I was a kid... Such a great cast of not only mice, but rats, too!

Katherine Langrish said...

What a lovely post! I'm longing to read the Voigt book!

Kate Coombs said...

Oh, Mrs. Frisby! That was one of my favorites, too. I always think of "the lee of the stone" when I see a lee-type situation.

And thanks, Katherine--enjoy!

Unknown said...

No one has mentioned the Tumtum and Nutmeg books by Emily Bearn? Great mouse stories! My boys loved both collections of their adventures (Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall and The Rose Cottage Tales). And just a reminder that there is a third title in Cleary's Ralph series - Runaway Ralph. Great post!

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Ann! I'll add those titles.