By Betty Carter – Every couple of years a strange phenomenon occurs within children’s publishing; a number of books will appear on the same subject without any identifiable trigger. This trend doesn’t include those near simultaneous publications one might expect: the full ballot of books about the presidency, voting, and famous presidents in 2008; the wide variety of books that examined Lincoln’s life for multiple age groups that marked his 200th birthday in 2009; and the flood of Titanic books that are beginning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster on April 15, 2012.
But in 2011, something different was appearing in the literary waters. This time it was middle grade books about mice. Now mice have a long literary heritage in novels for young people, beginning with Alice in Wonderland and including stalwart favorites such as Stuart Little; The Borrowers; Ben and Me; and a couple of Newbery Award Winners, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Tale of Despereaux. This year, through some strange coincidence, three former Newbery Award recipients, Cynthia Voight, Lois Lowry, and Richard Peck, recently published decidedly different books with mice as the main characters. They are, respectively, Young Fredle, Bless This Mouse, and Secrets at Sea. All great books and all worth an extra look, or looks as the case may be.
Besides their rodent protagonists, these books do have two similarities. All lend themselves to reading aloud and all contain references from the pop-culture that will appeal (without interfering with their respective stories) to adult readers.
Fredle is a house mouse and, like so many young readers, sometimes makes unwise choices and takes a few reckless risks. When he decides to nab a piece of candy, he’s spotted by the Missus and unceremoniously dumped outdoors, a fate he’s completely unprepared for but one that is much better than the alternative. Having never been outside, Fredle must adjust to all kinds of conditions and situations, all told believably from a mouse point of view. When he meets the field mice that surround his farm, Fredle learns a lesson straight out of George Orwell: All mice are equal but some more equal than others. The plot, of trying to find home, is familiar, but its execution gives the story a message all it’s own, and one that may resound strongly with readers seeking their own identities.
Lowry’s Bless This Mouse introduces readers to church mice, all living in Saint Bartholomew’s. Theirs is a gentle existence until Mouse Hildegarde realizes that it’s time for the Blessing of the Animals, an annual occurrence that brings – God forbid – cats into their sacred home. Good natured Father Murphy (who may remind older [OK, old] readers of Bing Crosby in Going My Way) is concerned when a nest of newborn mice seem to indicate an infestation, but Hildegarde handles the situation with a calm hand and a brave heart. This gentle story hits all the right notes without ever becoming over sentimentalized – a tribute to Lowry’s incredible strengths as a writer.
Think of the classic television series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” (or the more contemporary offering, “Downtown Abbey”) when slipping into Peck’s nineteenth-century setting. Helena, a “mouse of a certain age,” is the oldest (and most prim) member of a rodent family that lives undetected alongside the nouveau riche Cranstons, a family who desperately wants to marry off their dowdy daughter. The Cranstons decide to sail to England, hoping to find a suitable suitor; Helena realizes that she and her two younger sisters and irascible brother must accompany the Cranstons or they’ll starve. This fate is only slightly less appealing than an ocean voyage, but go they must, and Peck, with his sly humor in fine form here, never misses a trick in describing the social classes aboard (both human and rodent); employing clever word play; and laying out a romantic comedy of manners. But, being Peck, he lets larger themes emerge, including the importance of family, of being true to one’s self, and of courage.
Two other mouse tales bear mention here. The Cheshire Cheese Cat, by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, takes place in London in a pub (Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese) frequented by Charles Dickens. Alley cat Skilley would love to abandon his hardscrabble life and reside there, and he gets his chance when the owners decide they need a good mouser. Problem is, Skilley doesn’t like mice, but, the mice that live there comfortably make a catch and release deal with him. Skilly will capture the mice, make a great show of carrying them around so the owner will think he’s doing his job, and then let them go to scurry around in the walls and feast on the tavern droppings. Dickens, who recognizes a good con when he sees one, is busy scribbling on a book about two cities, and doesn’t reveal the fakery. And how do these animals repay him? By recognizing his writer’s block and suggesting a suitable first sentence that begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
In Mousenet, Prudence Breitrose introduces a more modern colony of mice, with the head of the Mouse Nation, Big Cheese, living in Silicon Valley. These mice have mastered the Internet (even have their own webpage) but have trouble navigating those large computers, for it takes a chain of mice, attached tail to tail, to reach down to the awkward, human sized PCs. Enter one inventor of things in miniature who tries to make a thumb-sized computer, and the mice of Cleveland Clan know their future lies in his success. They only need to form an alliance with his niece, Megan, to help them on their way. Readers will discover that as the Mouse Nation goes, so goes the world in this engaging tale of courage and cleverness.
Clearly, 2011 may be the Chinese year of the Rabbit, but it’s the literary year of the mouse.
- Betty Carter is a former New Orleans, Louisiana reading teacher; Houston, Texas school librarian; and Texas Woman’s University professor of children’s and young adult literature. She’s been a member of the Newbery Committee, which annually selects the most distinguished book in children’s literature and the Sibert Committee which annually selects the most outstanding informational book in children’s literature. She’s also been a juror and chair of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and is a past coordinator of the Texas Bluebonnet Committee which oversees the selection and use of an annual reading list of books read by over two-hundred thousand school children in Texas. She presently works as a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.
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