Putting stories into soup

Darwin's leaf-eared mouse, from George Robert Waterhouse's Mammalia

I wonder why mice so often figure in children’s literature? Think of Beatrix Potter, Aesop’s Fables, The Tale of Desperaux, Stuart Little, Chrysanthemum, Library Mouse, The Gruffalo, and Doctor DeSoto. There’s the Dormouse in Alice, as well as the Three Blind Mice and Hickory, Dickory, Dock of nursery rhymes.

In many of the stories that come to mind, the mouse is threatened by someone bigger and stronger, and needs to be brave to overcome the odds.

I’m thinking back to a time when my cat and I chased a mouse. Actually I was chasing the cat, trying to keep him from catching the mouse. And the poor mouse’s heart must have been ready to explode as he darted in and out of hiding spaces. Finally he was trapped, and I managed to scoop my cat out of the way and peer in at him, wedged as he was into a corner. I looked into his quivering mouse face and he actually squeezed his eyes shut in terror. I suppose sometimes you reach those moments, when there is nothing left to do but hope the inevitable will not happen. And amazingly, sometimes it doesn’t.

One of my top mouse books is Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel, who wrote the wonderful Frog and Toad series I’ve mentioned before (here and here). N has been home sick the last couple of days and wants to hear Mouse Soup over and over. It’s constructed as stories within a story, a concept she easily grasps now, whereas a few years ago, when we first got the book, she didn’t seem aware of that architecture. Now, she calls these brackets at each end of the book her favourite part.

Note the book beside the mouse in the dreaded soup pot

Mouse Soup begins with a mouse sitting quietly, reading his book, when suddenly he’s caught by a weasel, taken up by the tail, and carted off to “be soup.” But the mouse – as charming and as quick-thinking as the mouse in The Gruffalo – tells him, Oh no! Your soup won’t taste good if it doesn’t have any stories in it! The belly-rumbling weasel falls for this trick, and the stories unfold as ingredients.

The first is about a mouse plagued by a nest of bees who’ve decided to live on his head like a huge hat. How will he trick them into moving elsewhere when they constantly tell him how much they like his nose, his ears, his whiskers? The second features two large stones confined to a sedentary life on one side of a hill, believing for 100 years that life on the other side is better. How will they ever be happy? The third sees a mouse trying to sleep, but kept awake by a cricket chirping. She shouts at him to be quiet, but he misunderstands her, and invites more and more crickets to join him in song. How will she ever get any sleep? The fourth and final soup story is about a policeman who comes upon a crying woman. She’s sat on her beloved thorn bush and now all the branches are falling over. How will they revive the suffering plant?

Each of the four stories is decorated in the top corner with an image of the mouse in his soup pot, his tiny book on the counter beside him. When we finish the last story we see the weasel scratching his head, the mouse gesticulating, the ominous S & P shakers sitting near a spoon.

“But how can I put the stories into the soup?” the weasel asks.

The mouse tells him to run outside and gather a nest of bees, two large stones, ten crickets, and a thorn bush. “Come back and put them all into the soup.” Which of course allows the mouse to make his getaway.

Stories can be powerful things, and the little mouse has known this all along. It’s why he carries that book with him right through the tales, and why he goes home with it under his arm once he’s fooled the weasel. He settles into his mouse easy chair, eats his supper by the crackling fire, and then finishes his book right to the end. What a perfect, subtle way to convey to children the joy of reading.


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34 responses to “Putting stories into soup

  1. Vic

    Another good mouse book: The Subway Mouse, by Barbara Reid. It’s based in the TTC subways, though not explicitly. I like the book more for the artwork than the story itself. Plasticine, paint, and litter. 🙂 We’ve bought this book for several friends and relatives, and of course well in advance of our own arrival!

  2. kristendenhartog

    Oh definitely! That’s a great one. I must dig it out again, we haven’t read it in ages.

  3. Oh I don’t know Mouse Soup but I love Frog and Toad so I shall have to see if I can track it down – what a great discovery for me today!

  4. Hooray! It’s Mouse Soup is in my library system so I’ve put in a reservation 🙂

  5. Mouse Soup is a wonderful beginning reader. Mouse Tales by Lobel is just as good. But my favorite Lobel book is Owl at Home. It never fails to make me chuckle.

    And as for more books about mice, don’t forget The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary.

    • kristendenhartog

      We’ve got Mouse Tales too. I love the one where the mouse journeys to see his mother and wears out his feet on the way. Must definitely find Owl at Home. We haven’t read that one.

  6. Arnold Lobel is my favorite! I haven’t thought of Mouse Soup in years, but you’ve made me want to re-read it.

  7. I’ve seen this book around, but never looked inside. It sounds wonderful! I really want to check it out now. Thanks for the post–I hope N is feeling better!

  8. As a kid I adored The Two Bad Mice, but I didn’t discover Mouse Soup until this last year when looking for books for my early reader. I just love it.

  9. Great idea for a blog post! Interestingly, I wrote a pb ms that then transformed from a book about 10 mice into a book about rabbits, which is called Seven Little Bunnies and came out in 2010. It’s funny to think about the how revision process can take a story from an idea to publication and there are so many varied versions in the process.

  10. I have more mouse stories! Cricket in Times Square by Selden, the Poppy books by Avi, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by O’Brien.

    And there’s Reepicheep in the Narnia stories.

    I loved that age of reading with my son. He was late to read on his own, but loved stories big and small, so we had lots of time together. This is also when he learned to love audio books.

    • kristendenhartog

      Thank you for these great tips! N reads on her own a little but still prefers to be read to. I’ll do it as long as she’ll have me! And yes, audio books are great too.

  11. So what was the fate of the mouse that you cornered? (I’m hoping he was put outside?) 🙂 e

  12. This is a great post to read as my four year old and I have been paging through The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pickney. Those little guys are powerful characters.

  13. elizabethannewrites

    I must look for Mouse Soup — and The Subway Mouse (I love Barbara Reid’s artwork!).

    One of my favorite mouse books is The Great American Mousical, a chapter book about mice who live under a Broadway theatre. It’s great fun, and teaches children about the theatre at the same time. By Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton, a mother/daughter writing team.

    • kristendenhartog

      Thanks for the tip! Interesting, too, that it’s by a mother-daughter team.

      • elizabethannewrites

        I thought you might like the mother/daughter connection — and it was inspired by a real mouse in a theatre dressing room (that was taken outside and given a fresh new life, just as yours was!).

    • kristendenhartog

      I love the Julie Andrews connection too! We watched Sound of Music over Christmas, and my daughter is learning Do Re Mi on the piano. She’ll be delighted by this book, I’m sure.

      • elizabethannewrites

        I’ll soon be reviewing another book by Julie and Emma, “Little Bo in Italy”, which is third in a series of 4 books about a ship’s cat. Did you know Julie’s been writing for kids since 1972?

  14. Deb

    What a wonderful post, thank you. And have to add that Desperaux is my hero…as is Anne with an E:)

  15. So glad I found your blog! I read Mouse Soup with my 5-year-old recently and we both loved it. I’m about to post a review he dictated to me of Little Mouse Gets Ready, a graphic novel by Jeff Smith. Another graphic novel series he really likes is Benny & Penny (also about mice).

  16. I think mice are adorable. And I should know, having chased so many out of my house this winter. I’m pretty sure they make their way back through the woods, feeling like they got an unexpected vacation trip to their hometown.

    You might read a book we looked at in book club – A Nest for Celeste. It’s a chapter book, but with lots of illustrations – lovely illustations – perfect for reading aloud to kids.

  17. I love this one, too.

    Don’t forget Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH! And Nightshade City (which I haven’t read yet and is about rats, but no matter).

  18. I am so glad to find your blog and in particular this entry given I was in a discussion about two months ago with two librarians who brought up this issue of so many “mice” in children’s literature. It wasn’t a negative “take” on the issue, just a statement of fact and wondering. I look forward to sharing this posting with them, thank you!

    • kristendenhartog

      Please do! I’ve noticed a lot of children’s book bloggers are librarians. Not surprising really. Since N was small I’ve so enjoyed visiting our local library and getting the two librarians’ take what are the top notch books. They often disagree with each other!

  19. The recordings of both Mouse Soup and Mouse Tales in the old book-and-tape days were done by Lobel — he had a lovely warm voice, works just right with his stories.

    I’ve always felt he must have written Owl at Home and Uncle Elephant at an unhappier — or at least kinda depressed — point in his life. A lonely take on the world.

    And don’t forget Small Pig, also by Lobel! He leaves the farm, goes to the big city, and wallows in cement… There’s a happy ending

    • kristendenhartog

      Thanks for this. I wonder if those recordings are still available. I’m curious too about Owl at Home and Uncle Elephant. The loneliness appeals to me! My own work tends to be sad too — an ongoing concern for my mom, who always says “But you seem so happy!”
      I’m enjoying perusing your aunt and Annie blog. So many wise librarians out there in the world of children’s literature blogs!

  20. How did Comment Challenge work out for you? Even if you didn’t make the five-a-day goal, come by the Finish Line at http://www.motherreader.com/2011/01/comment-challenge-2011-finish-line.html

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