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.
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.