So. With Halloween right around the corner, just begging to be a blog post, I'm really more in the mood to talk about mice again. Why? Because the great Richard Peck has thrown his hat into the ring of the mouse boxing match. (I wanted to say "mouse circus," but I looked up the origin of "throw your hat into the ring" and discovered it's a boxing expression.) What I mean to say is, Peck has written a mouse book, too: Secrets at Sea.
I have two questions about all of this. One is, why did three of the best children's books writers of all time come out with mouse books this year? The other is, quite frankly, how do the three books compare?
I'll start by summarizing each book for you, with a lot more detail for Peck's story, since his wasn't around for my February post.
Lowry's Bless This Mouse features a tribe of church mice who live in a Catholic church called St. Bartholomew's. Their leader, Hildegarde, must keep her people safe. She must also fend off attempts by a sneaky rival to take her top spot. In order to maintain the status quo, Hildegarde enforces a strict policy of birth control in the mouse population. I know, it sounds like China's Communist oligarchy, but the book is actually light-hearted, the proverbial rollicking read. It turns out Hildegarde faces a bigger threat than Lucretia—the humans have learned of the mice and are planning to exterminate them. Hildegarde decides that the best way to protect her tribe is to evacuate to the outdoors till the danger has passed. Meanwhile, the human parishioners are gearing up for a ceremony in which children bring their pets to be blessed by Father Murphy, a tradition honoring St. Francis of Assissi. Hildegarde takes note of the fact that the church mice are not exactly invited to the blessing of the animals, adding another wrinkle to the story.
Voigt's Young Fredle is a sort of Jonathan Livingston Seagull character. (If you're too young to get that reference, here's the Wiki article.) He's a house mouse living on a farm, but he winds up outside quite by accident and doesn't know how to get back inside to his family. Fredle manages to stay alive, has all sorts of adventures, and becomes such a different person that he no longer fits in with his clan. He learns about snakes, raccoons, reliable and unreliable friends, and the stars. He's a bit of a philosopher, and his growing view of the world permeates the book.
In Richard Peck's Secrets at Sea, Helena and her three younger siblings—Louise, Lamont, and Beatrice—live with a nouveau riche family in turn-of-the-century New York. Our story begins when Louise bursts in with the news that the Cranston household is in an uproar, planning to go on some kind of journey because older daughter Olive "must be given Her Chance." The sisters hardly have time to parse this information before Lamont bursts in, missing his tail.
You get some idea of just how determined and brave Helena is when she makes Lamont take her to the scene of the crime to get that tail back. They make it out alive—barely. Then Helena sits right down and sews Lamont's tail back on.
The little mouse family realizes that the Cranstons intend to take a sea voyage in hopes of finding a fashionable husband for Olive, who appears to be in danger of becoming an old maid. (The teenage Cranston daughter Camilla is actually friends with Louise, which makes Helena nervous.) Following the counsel of her eccentric, oracular Aunt Fannie, Helena and her siblings accompany the Cranstons on their voyage. Once onboard ship, they discover a large number of mice crew and passengers whose behavior quietly mimics that of the human crew and passengers. Helena and her family also intervene in the lives of the Cranstons, who could certainly use the help.
Peck's wording, as always, is perfectly crafted, and his humor is sly and witty. Here are a couple of examples:
We are mice, and as Mother used to say, we are among the very First Families of the land. We were here before the squirrels. The squirrels came for the acorns. We sold them the acorns. (8)
From the rear Lamont looked ridiculous without his complete tail. He paused and put a finger to his chin, though he has no chin. He was stalling. (27)
"Why don't boys ever want to be themselves? Why do boys always want to be somebody else?" asked Louise, who wanted to be Camilla. (124)
As Aunt Fannie points out, Helena has her hands full with her siblings: Louise consorts with humans, Lamont takes wild, life-threatening risks, and Beatrice sneaks out to meet unsuitable mouse boys. Between them and the Cranstons, Helena can hardly keep it all straight. But she's quick on her four little feet, and this ocean voyage promises to be the making of both human and mouse families in unexpected ways.
Humor, action, plot twists, romance: Secrets of Sea has it all, just as you'd hope for when reading the latest from a dab hand like Richard Peck.
Now, let's consider the three books together.
Bless This Mouse—The church mouse premise and setting makes for some very fun jokes as well as a nice counterpoint between the human and mouse users of the building. Lowry has a good time with things like the mouse-eye view of the stories of the martyrs depicted in the stained glass.
Secrets at Sea—An ocean voyage evocative of the Titanic, only without the iceberg. Throwing mice into this supposedly elegant mix is clever and often funny.
Young Fredle—The farmhouse, barn, and outlying land become an entire universe for a small mouse. This setting is the most realistic of the three, especially the way Voigt uses it.
Bless This Mouse—Clothes are never mentioned in the text, but the mice are depicted on the book cover and in internal illustrations as wearing clothes, something the author would have had to approve. Hildegarde and her people all talk, and they are aware of human history and doings.
Secrets at Sea—It threw me a little when Helena explained that mice wear clothes in their own homes, but not when out where humans might see them. The mice in this book act like humans in a lot of ways, but must hide from humans and especially from cats.
Young Fredle—No clothing here. The mice in this book really do act like mice, but they do think, and they talk to each other and other animals.
Bless This Mouse—Hildegarde is determined and often exasperated, but she has courage and leadership that go for miles, or at least for feet.
Secrets at Sea—Helena has a wonderful, strong voice and you'll be cheering for her every step of the way. She's not perfect: she's bossy and she thinks she's always right. But then, that's a pretty good take on a lot of oldest sisters (I say, speaking as one)! This book is the only one of the three written in first person, which quite suits the story.
Young Fredle—Fredle is a very rich character. It's so easy to put yourself in his place and/or worry about him as he learns about the greater world. Fredle is hopeful and yearning and kind and quite bright, even though he's lacking in all sorts of knowledge.
Bless This Mouse—The peril keeps this plot popping, as do Hildegarde's attempts to deal with everything that comes up. There are two plot twists that you may not see coming.
Secrets at Sea—Peck twists his plot like a pretzel, and the ongoing threat of discovery by humans makes this book a game of cat-and-mouse, sometimes literally.
Young Fredle—Like Fredle, you will never know quite what to expect, though there is some foreshadowing about dangers such as a snake in the barn.
Bless This Mouse—The mousey interpretation of the church and its doings is amusing throughout (e.g., thoughts on the edibility of crayons), but I particularly liked the town meetings Hildegarde holds, filled with interruptions, colorful personalities, and political maneuvering.
Secrets at Sea—There's a lot to love here, but I was especially fond of a scene in which Helena and a little boy with a bed full of contraband sweets face down a mean nanny.
Young Fredle—One of the most intriguing sections of the book has to do with a group of rowdy raccoons who take Fredle prisoner. Their captain finds a fellow thinker in Fredle, but he's perfectly realistic about the likelihood of eating the mouse should other food options fail to present themselves.
Themes and Spirituality
Bless This Mouse—Lowry has interesting things to say about which animals humans value and which they don't. (I suspect the author is a vegetarian, but couldn't find confirmation of that.) Other themes are the importance of community and of focusing on what needs to be done rather than on status. Religion plays a key role in the book, but you will feel you are wrapped in a warm blanket of spirituality rather than being urged to follow any particular tradition.
Secrets at Sea—We are told more than once that mice must live in the moment because their lives are short and indeed, are often cut short. Helena tries to control her siblings and their fates, but she learns to let go in many ways. Another message is that you have to take risks, and just plain take action, to make your life better. On another note, the mouse perspective on human antics makes those interactions seem sillier than ever, for a nice slice of satire.
Young Fredle—This feels like a very philosophical coming-of-age story, but it manages not to preach. What matters most in life? Is surviving all there is to our existence? These are the kinds of questions Voigt raises in her book.
Bless This Mouse—Eric Rohmann is the illustrator. The jacket art shows a handful of very cute mice, with Hildegarde front and center. Interior illustrations, some full page, continue to highlight mouse personalities, focusing on body language and facial expressions. The artwork adds to the book.
Secrets at Sea—Illustrator Kelly Murphy's jacket art shows the four mouse siblings jauntily holding onto some sort of ship's tackle, with the sea in the background. These mice are a bit less cute than the ones in Bless This Mouse, but are still appealing. Interior illustrations do include some full-page spreads. The art is nice, but I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. Peck's words outgunned it at every (page) turn.
Young Fredle—Louise Yates is the illustrator. The cover art makes Fredle look a little too cartoony for my taste, with a touch of Quentin Blake to the style. But having him look up at the stars is nice, as well as thematically correct. He does appear a bit hapless, which also fits. The interior illustrations are sparse, mostly spot art. They actually distracted a little from my experience of the story when I noticed them.
Bless This Mouse—A very fun story. I wasn't sure the ending worked with everything that had come before, but maybe that's just me.
Secrets at Sea—Clever and outrageously entertaining.
Young Fredle—Deeply involving and moving. Fredle instantly leaps to the front of the pack when it comes to animal and even people stories about young people finding their place in the world.
Of course, now that I've done it, I'll admit it's entirely unnecessary to compare these books. I can happily recommend all three for your bookshelf. Unlike the Disney group, this Mouse club consists of exalted company indeed.
So why did three Newbery award-winning authors write mouse books at this stage of their careers? The obvious answer is, to have fun. To take it a little farther, however, I think once you pass a certain point in your life and work, you might just have room for real, I-know-exactly-who-I-am humility. And what could be more humble than a mouse? Through the little voice at the baseboards, these authors give us timeless truths, whether in Lois Lowry's comfortable church lady-running-a-committee persona, Peck's erudite tongue-in-cheek style, or Voigt's yearning, wondering tones.
Note: If you're feeling deprived on the spooky front, please visit my best Halloween post ever, "Enter Three Witches."