Tag Archives: arnold lobel

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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Extra funny, extra sad: the fear of extraneousness

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

My husband (in my opinion a delightfully funny man) likes to joke that I have no sense of humour — it isn’t my fault, he says soothingly. It might be my Dutch background. When he brings home funny movies, he holds them up and says “Not available in the Netherlands!”

It’s true that for the most part I don’t like funny movies or funny TV shows, or at least the ones that are billed as comedies. I cringe at most stand-up comedy, where the jokes are rolled out one after another and the audience sits gawking and guffawing in all the right spots. But I do love to laugh. I think the best humour is woven in with other things, so that it surprises you when it comes. I guess my funny bone is particular, like my sweet tooth. I don’t like sweet desserts, but sweet with salty, with bitter, with sour, can be delicious.

Recently we watched two seasons of the show Extras, in which English comedian Ricky Gervais portrays a lowly extra, Andy Millman, who eventually soars to fame by playing a character he comes to despise. He gives up on his integrity, and dismisses his closest relationships, which have become irrelevant — extraneous. I liked Gervais’ earlier series, The Office, but I didn’t expect that this one, with its parade of enormously famous stars (David Bowie, Robert de Niro, Clive Owen, Kate Winslet), would really pull me in. So I watched most of the episodes with one eye on the TV and the other on the newspaper. I laughed occasionally while my husband dissolved into hysterics beside me.

And then came the series finale. Andy Millman’s fame has peaked and is now on the downward spiral. He begins taking every opportunity to claw his way up to a more respectable level of celebrity, but of course it’s the slipperiest of slopes. He winds up on a reality TV show, with a bunch of “stars” he’s never heard of, and they all sit around talking about themselves and imagining their futures, which, for one woman who likes to rhyme off all of the famous people she’s slept with, includes a celebrity wedding for which Hello! picks up the tab. “Andy, will you come to my Hello! wedding?” she asks. This sets Andy off on a fabulous rant about the pointlessness of “selling ourselves … selling everything,” and living life’s most personal moments out in the open.

“What are we doing?” he asks.

Partway through, the tears were streaming down my face. Not funny tears, but real weeping tears. I turned to my husband and said, “Now this is the kind of comedy I can appreciate!” (Which should prove that I do indeed have a sense of humour.)

This show expertly reveals the emptiness inside that desperate search for recognition. And that sense of desperation, I think, is something most of us can relate to, whatever our career or situation. It’s easy (not to mention painful) to fall into the trap of determining your own self worth by what the wrong “audience” thinks of you. Watching Extras, I was reminded of those excellent children’s books, Frog and Toad, which should perhaps be required reading for all ages.

In one story, “The Dream,” Toad falls asleep and imagines himself on stage in a large theatre, wearing a grand costume and a feathery hat. Only Frog, his loyal companion, is in the audience, cheering Toad on. A voice introduces each of Toad’s acts and Toad plays the piano magnificently, walks on tight rope, and dances, calling out each time, “Frog, can you do this?” Each time Frog answers “No,” and grows smaller and smaller, his voice fainter and fainter, until finally Toad cannot see him or hear him at all. The booming voice begins to announce Toad’s next amazing accomplishment, but humbled Toad is “spinning in the dark,” fearing he’s lost his one true friend.




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gimme, gimme

Frog_and_toad_coverLately I’ve been thinking a lot about giving. Much of it is child related — trying to foster in our daughter what we call her “generous spirit” — but what we dole out as lessons often seems to float back to me on an adult level as well (the way passages in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books do, but that’s a subject for a future post).

Our daughter loves to give. She doesn’t always love to share — but full-on giving brings her enormous pleasure. And usually it’s all her idea. She might give a drawing, or a plastic drumstick, or a plate of cookies, or a stuffed animal from her vast collection. And the anticipation of handing the thing over is  almost more than she can stand. She skips along ahead of me, clutching the gift and beaming.

I was telling a friend about this (a wonderful writer who will remain unnamed here, so I don’t give any secrets away), and he confessed to me that sometimes he feels compelled to give certain people something that has enormous value for him. It may have little value for the recipient — and he never tells them, “Do you know how much this means to me?” He just wants them — or maybe needs them — to have it.

This sense of spontaneity impresses me. We give, and then a rush comes from giving — which is different from giving in order to get the rush. I remember once telling my daughter that generosity would make her feel fantastic inside — and then immediately thinking that was off, somehow, and twisted, the way it seems twisted to believe in god so that you get into heaven. There are so many things in life that we measure based on what we will get out of them.

The other day I was entering the subway, and an old woman just inside the turnstile offered me a green scarf, with the hope of receiving some change in return. She had a dirty zip-lock bag in the other hand, full of perfume samples, and I noticed as I hurried by that she was wearing what looked like an old pilot’s uniform — a dark jacket with gold bits at the lapels. I mumbled my apology and went past, but when I got down to the platform I had this awful feeling. I stood there for a few minutes, and watched more people rushing down the stairs — none of them had the scarf in their hands. And though I heard the train approaching, I found myself climbing the stairs again, and digging in my purse for some change.

I had only $1.35, so I said to the woman as I handed it over, “Don’t worry, keep the scarf, I just want you to have this.” She was obviously grateful for the change, but she pushed the scarf toward me. “Hand-made, hand-made,” she kept repeating, patting it and putting it in my hands. I tried insisting, but it quickly became awkward, and I realized how important it was for her to give it to me — to have something to offer. (And the thing is, I am a scarf person, and a person who loves green.)

A different scarf -- one of many

A different greenish scarf -- one of many

So off I went, on a hot, humid day, with “my” scarf. Another train came, and I got on, and instead of using the precious time alone the way I usually would (to read or make notes), I immediately started chewing over what I would do with the scarf — I could leave it on the train for someone else to find, and they might need a scarf, or maybe have a desire to sell it, and in that way the spirit of generosity would flourish. Or would it? What if the pilot lady came upon it again, lying there abandoned. Or what if someone saw me leave it there as I disembarked, and shouted after me, “Wait, you forgot your scarf!” And beyond all that — was it right to leave behind this thing that someone had so needed me to receive?

But what if she’d stolen the scarf, and the person she’d taken it from saw me with it? Where did she get her pilot’s jacket, and all those perfume samples, and so on — all of which I realized were a story-lover’s mind taking over the event, and shaping it into something bigger. I tried to stop thinking about what had really been a tiny, forgettable moment, and pulled out my notebook and started jotting things down. But the scarf was there beneath it, defining the space.

Yes, I took it home, and I suppose I will keep it. It’s green, after all.

There is so much emphasis on giving, but what about receiving? The taker, as well as the giver, has a role to play. How often do we find ourselves declining gracious gestures, simple compliments, thoughtful gifts, rides home, help when we’re struggling — why does it feel so awkward to accept and say thank you? I suppose there is generosity in receiving too — and a level of empathy in being able to do either well.


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