Literary Mice

If you should ever be faced with a mouse sighting while in a room full of children, you may found, as I have, that you have a tricky diplomatic situation on your hands.  (I should say before I go any further that I have always been lucky enough to work at very nice, well-maintained schools.  However, kids drop crumbs, and crumbs attract mice, so there you go.)  First of all, some of the natural adult reactions to a mouse – shrieking, fleeing, calling an exterminator – would involve a certain loss of dignity if done in front of a class.  But just as tricky is the fact that the majority of the children in the room are often cooing at the mouse and squealing in delight.  You see, for most elementary students, mice are familiar friends from literature.  Often at least one child will declare, “Look, it’s Ralph!”  And you wouldn’t want to hurt Ralph, now, would you?  Of course not.

I’m sure there are all sorts of psychological reasons why children might identify with mice and why mice make such excellent characters in books for young children.  Rather than delving deeper into that, I’m going to restrict myself to commenting on a few of my personal favorites (with a write-in candidate on behalf of my students).

Cover of "The Mouse and the Motorcycle"

Cover of The Mouse and the Motorcycle

Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle (written by Beverly Cleary).  Ralph is my own personal childhood favorite mouse.  In the first book in his series, Ralph, a resident of a tumbledown hotel, meets a boy named Keith who comes to stay at the hotel … and, more importantly, meets Keith’s toy motorcycle, which is perfectly sized for a mouse to ride.  He finds that if you make a “pb-pb-b-b-b” noise with your mouth, the motorcycle actually runs.  Ralph and Keith slowly build a realistic friendship, and in the end, Ralph’s driving skills give him the chance to help his new friend.  I absolutely loved this book as a child, and it holds up well to rereading as an adult.  Cleary has developed a remarkably textured world, and her descriptions from a mouse-eye’s view makes me wonder how much time she spent crawling around on the floor to get the details just right.  She also walks the tricky line of animal fantasy beautifully: her mouse has recognizable human traits like curiosity and stubbornness without losing his mousy qualities.  Children who are longing to be taken seriously themselves often connect to the seriousness mixed with humor with which this book is written.  I will say that the vocabulary is denser than I had remembered as a child – within the first few chapters readers will find the words “chromium,” “momentum,” and “antimacassar” – so it’s a good chance to talk to children about using context to figure out words or making a list of words to investigate later.

Cover of "Time Stops for No Mouse (Hermux...

Cover via Amazon

Hermux Tantamoq from Time Stops for No Mouse (written by Michael Hoeye).  Hermux is a more recent entry to the world of mousey literature, featured in a series of four books.  In Time Stops for No Mouse, Hermux, a mild-mannered watchmaker who lives in a town filled with rodents, finds his quiet world turned upside down when a beautiful aviatrix named Linka Perflinger drops off a watch to be repaired at his shop … then disappears.  His quest to find her brings him into contact with all kinds of shady characters, including the menacing Dr. Mennus (ha ha) who is searching for the Fountain of Youth.  I often sell this book to readers by describing it as a “mousey Indiana Jones.”  I also have to reassure them that the action really will pick up eventually, since they are sometimes a bit skeptical after a few chapters.  The book starts with some incredibly descriptive chapters that I found charming and well-written but that children find a bit … slow.  This story makes a fantastic read aloud: the chapters are very short and often end with cliffhangers.  Adults will enjoy the references to common adventure/mystery clichés (the diary of a lost Amazon adventurer! a doomsday machine! multiple secret identities!), and I have particularly enjoyed watching children encounter some of those clichés for the first time.  The anthropomorphized mice and other rodents are well-developed, and Hermux makes a very appealing underdog (or undermouse?) to root for.

Frontispiece from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, sh...

Frontispiece from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, showing Tom Thumb smashing the plaster food while his wife Hunca Munca watches. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice (written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter)This was one of my very favorite Beatrix Potter books as a child; I remember the lovely illustrations so well that I must have read this book hundreds of times.  Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca come out from their home in the walls of a house to discover a dollhouse conveniently stocked with lots of food.  Much to their disappointment, the food is all just pretend, and they proceed to ransack the house out of a mixture of curiosity and pure mischief.  I remember feeling a secret kinship with Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca’s naughtiness when I would look at my grandmother’s Victorian dollhouse as a child: everything was so appealing, but so untouchable and unreal that some little part of me wanted to try pulling the food off the plates just like the little mice.  (In fact, I’m fairly sure that as a child I had the confused idea that this book was written about my grandmother’s dollhouse.)  The paintings in this book are truly beautiful, and, although some of the references will be a little obscure for children, they will still find the naughty little mice genuinely funny and appealing.  Although I think this book is best enjoyed in the classic Beatrix Potter format of a tiny hardcover, you can also find the entire text of this book online (see, for example, this link).

Geronimo Stilton Race Across America

Geronimo Stilton Race Across America (Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

Geronimo Stilton from the Geronimo Stilton series.  On behalf of my students, I feel I must mention a current very popular entry to the world of literary mice: Geronimo Stilton, the star of over fifty books (not counting special editions and spin-off series).  Geronimo is a reporter at the Rodent’s Gazette.  Despite his shy and skittish personality, he is constantly pulled into fur-raising adventures.  My third graders absolutely love these books.  They have literally read most of the copies in my classroom to pieces (several are barely held together with tape), and Geronimo Stilton books are among the most popular choices from our book orders.  The students assure me that these books are exciting and hilarious.  Unfortunately, I cannot speak to those points very clearly because I have never made it all the way through one.  The mouse-related puns, hyperactive plots, and incessant word art (the word big is printed BIG! the word scared is shivering!) all give me a migraine.  Still, I will put on my Sympathetic Teacher hat and say that the word art is probably good decoding support, the repetitive structure is probably reassuring to new readers, and anything that gets kids reading is all for the best.  Nevertheless, I would recommend buying this series for the children in your life, then just letting them summarize the story for you rather than trying to read it for yourself.


Visiting the Recent Past

One of the great pleasures of reading children’s books as part of my work (and one of the inspirations behind this blog) is the chance to reread books with a kind of double vision.  Whenever I come back to a book I read as a child, I can look at it with my adult eyes, imposing all my adult sensibilities, knowledge, and perspectives … but I can also still see  the ghostly impressions and opinions of my voracious child-reader self.  Rereading is one of the surest ways I know to re-engage with that childhood self.  But there’s another funny phenomenon I sometimes stumble on.  Occasionally I’ll read a book that I didn’t read as a child that still manages to make me feel nostalgic for some piece of my childhood.  It feels a bit like reaching back the other way, handing a book from my end back to that child reader to get her reaction.

One of my favorite examples of a book that can evoke “faux nostalgia” for me  is  Meet M and M (written by Pat Ross, pictures by Marylin Hafner).  This is not a book I remember reading as a child, though it certainly could have been – the series was first published in 1980.  I discovered it when searching for something that would be accessible for my less confident readers.  (It’s at the same reading level as Frog and Toad but qualifies as a “real” book in the minds of third graders because it has “real” chapters and it’s usually not a book they’ve seen before.)  The story is about Mandy and Mimi, two best friends who are so similar that they pretend to be twins.  One day they have a a terrible fight, perfectly realistic in the way it starts over nothing and explodes into insults and warfare.  The girls finally resolve their argument and the book ends on a note that is both uplifting and realistic.

So what is it about this story that fills me with such  longing for the books of my childhood?  Primarily it’s the setting, in all senses of the word, and the way it’s charmingly evoked by Hafner’s illustrations.  The story takes place in the apartment building where the girls live one floor away from each other.  Their environment is untidy but not messy – “lived in,” as my mother would say – and their relationships with each other and their families are positive but realistic.  They engage in real play, the kind of unstructured play I wish all kids had more time for: making crafts, role playing, dressing up, and lots of time spent with guinea pigs and other pets.  Hafner (who illustrated more than 100 picture books, including one of my childhood favorites, Germs Make Me Sick!) creates pictures of this environment that are somehow both detailed and simple, with human characters that are realistic but with a cartoonish element to them.  The illustrations pull me right back to that friendly/realistic city environment that was part of the Sesame Street episodes of the early eighties.

The other element of this story that feels nostalgic to me is the role of adults … or rather, the relative unimportance of their role.  We do see the girls’ parents, and they never feel entirely unsupervised, but this relationship belongs entirely to them.  Their parents aren’t arranging playdates or suggesting activities.  When the girls fight, there are no kindly suggestions from the adults or social coaching about how to repair the relationship.  Ultimately, the solution to the fight (a bucket sent down from the window of one apartment to the other with an offered gift) comes entirely from the girls.  At a time when adult anxiety about children’s relationships can reach fever pitch (and sometimes with good reason), there’s something comforting and empowering to children about the idea that relationships can break and be put back together again.

Of course, my students don’t pick up on the gamma rays of nostalgia that this book sends out to me.  There are no particular references or elements of style that make this book feel “old” to them.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s just another book group book (and a “real chapter book,” at that), with lots of opportunities to talk about conflict and resolution, character comparisons, and personal connections.  My teacher-self loves that about this book.  My child-self loves the chance to revisit a not-so-distant time period that somehow feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

Politics with Old Friends

When election fatigue starts to set in, I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by third graders.  Eight year olds tend to approach this event, as they approach so many parts of their day, with a charming mixture of curiosity and vagueness as to exact details (there have been several grave conversations between children about whether someone named “Romney … or maybe Rombly” will “get a turn” to be president next).  There are many wonderful picture books about elections, politics, and presidents, but two of my favorites use characters that many children know from other books.  Both of these books stand on their own, but children who are familiar with the characters will enjoy seeing these old friends in a new light on the campaign trail.

Cover of "Duck for President (New York Ti...

Cover via Amazon

Duck for President (written by Doreen Cronin, illustrations by Betsy Lewin) continues the story of the farm first introduced in the Caldecott Honor book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.  Duck is tired of his chores on the farm, and decides it’s time to move up in the world.  He runs for the job of farmer (much to the surprise of the Farmer, who didn’t know it was up for election) and wins.  Unfortunately, that job has its own problems, so Duck continues to seek out higher and higher office.  Children love the expressive illustrations and the details of each messy job.  There’s plenty of new political concepts to introduce to readers as Duck ascends the ladder of elected positions, and the growing size of the numbers (up to millions in the presidential elections)  in each electoral tally will tickle the mathematically inclined.  Adults may be more entertained by the constant recounts and the unusual places that missing ballots are found.  They may also recognize references to iconic presidential images in some of the hilarious illustrations.  There is a lesson for readers here – something about appreciating your own role and realizing that each job comes with its own headaches – but that lesson is saved from being heavy-handed by a funny twist at the end.

Cover of "Letters from the Campaign Trail...

Cover via Amazon

LaRue for Mayor: Letters from the Campaign Trail (written and illustrated by Mark Teague) features one of my third graders’ very favorite literary dogs, Ike LaRue.  Ike first appeared in the clever picture book Dear Mrs. LaRue, and this book uses the same strategy as that one of telling the story through Ike’s letters to his owner and articles from the local paper.  Ike writes to his owner while she is recovering in the hospital to tell her about his “social club” of dogs, dedicated to “good deeds.”  The rowdy dogs (who are actually spending most of their time knocking over hot dog carts and disrupting baseball games) come to the attention of mayoral candidate Hugo Bugwort, who decides to run on a harsh “anti-dog” platform.  Naturally, Ike has to enter the race against him, engaging in some good old-fashioned smear tactics.  In the end, Bugwort sees the error of his ways and a bipartisan (human and dog, of course) coalition is created.  This book is a nice introduction to the shaking-hands-and-kissing-babies nature of local politics.  However, like the other Ike LaRue books, it also has another lesson for children in the idea of perspective.  Ike writes to his owner in glowing terms about his own innocent activities, and his dramatic voice is one of the reasons this is such a delightful read aloud.  Teague’s illustrations are done in a split screen fashion: Ike’s version of the story is illustrated in black and white, while the messier reality of the situation is illustrated in color on the same page.  Children love picking up on the exaggerations of this unreliable first-person narrator, and they hone in quickly on the differences between Ike’s words and the color illustrations.  This method of storytelling and shifting perspective could lead to a particularly interesting conversation with older children about the ways that political parties use perspective in their ads and speeches.

As you find yourself wading through the piles of election themed books this season, I highly recommend Ike and Duck as humorous incumbents that your child can get behind.  Happy reading!