What is it about these little creatures that makes them such a staple of fantasy fiction? From Mrs. Frisby to Reepicheep to Matthias to the immortal Mickey, mice have aspired to greatness, even heroism. Maybe the appeal of the little bitty hero is too powerful to resist—and besides, they’re so darn cute. They also insist on coming inside to share space with us, and perhaps familiarity breeds inspiration. When my kids were little we discovered Graham Oakley’s Church Mouse books (now out of print, unfortunately) and went wild for them. An actual mouse in the house is a problem, but between the pages of a story (where they belong!) they make loveable protagonists.
Celeste lives in the wall of a Louisiana plantation house, where she weaves baskets of grass and any other material at hand—lately feathers. But trouble looms when the resident rats conscript her to forage for them, leading to a run-in with the cat and exile from her home. “What a palace I’ve lived in!” she marvels from the top of the stairs—a place she never appreciated until forced out of it. In her quest for new lodgings, Celeste has her view expanded further, meets several creatures outside her experience, and becomes the shirt-pocket companion of Joseph, boy apprentice to John James Audubon. Thrills, terrors and anxieties await, but her new home, though tinged with the sadness of separation, will be a place for her to create peace as well as baskets.
This is a gentle, meandering story with some lovely illustrations, like the double-page spread of Audubon and Joseph setting off on a journey under magnificent live oaks. A bit of 21st Century moralism creeps in, such as Joseph’s response to men blasting away at clouds of passenger pigeons (now extinct), but for the most part we’re spared. Young readers may decide for themselves what they think about Audubon killing and stuffing his birds before he painted them so exquisitely.
The story would be a good accompaniment to nature study, as Celeste encounters hollyhocks, sunflowers, several varieties of trees (live oak, poplar, cypress, dogwood), and birds: osprey, thrush, and Carolina parakeet (also extinct). Simple pleasures and beauties abound: “The wood thrush then lifted its head and let loose a startlingly clear warble that resonated throughout the room.” Nature can be terrifying–“Each as big as her ear, the drops fell from the black sky like spears”–but Celeste eventually finds a place within four walls for herself.
Bless This Mouse, by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Eric Rohman. Houghton Mifflin, 2011, 152 pages. Age/interest level: 6-10.
Hildegarde, mistress of the church mice, has her hands full keeping her flock under the radar of the Great X (who has fur and whiskers). To make matters more dicey, the annual feast of St. Francis is approaching, with its Blessing of the Animals–the place will be teaming with cats! With the help of devoted admirers, and in spite of jealous rivals, Hildegarde thwarts the enemy, rescues her compatriots, and earns a blessing from Father Murphy himself.
A cute story, even sweet in places. A few questions that primary students will probably not raise, such as Hidegarde’s perturbation at the beginning that one of her flock has produced a litter in spite of strict orders not to reproduce: how was that supposed to be enforced? Also, maybe a little too much information at times, such as a horse peeing on Fr. Murphy’s periwinkles and a (human) member of the Altar Guild shouting “Oh my GAWD!” at the sight of a mouse. Otherwise it’s an inoffensive, if not particularly original, story that might help introduce Evangelical kids to Mainstream practice and liturgy. Some of that liturgy would be worth recovering, such as the congregational confession (Hildegarde leads) and closing with a rousing chorus of “For All The Saints”—one of my favorites.
Richard Peck, like Lois Lowry, is a lion among children’s authors and two-time Newbery award winner. (And apparently a friend of Sally Lloyd Jones, to whom he dedicates this book.) He has a list of titles the length of my arm, but hasn’t dabbled too much in fantasy, especially animal fantasy. Secrets at Sea is full-blown and full-dress: the mice take their clothes off when in the company of humans (who mustn’t suspect), but among themselves they rig out in full Victorian regalia, with manners and decorum to match.
Big sister Helena is head of her family after the unfortunate drowning of her mother and two sisters. Two sisters are left, boy-crazy Beatrice and sarcastic Louisa, not to mention their brother Lamont, who’s on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. But the world turns upside-down when their humans, the Cranstons, make plans to attend the London social season in order to give their oldest daughter a crack at matrimony. Trouble is, the Cranstons live in New York, meaning a journey across 3000 miles of you-know-what, which has always been a terror. “Time is always running out for us mice, and water often figures in.” Helena is at her wit’s end until Aunt Fannie Fenimore advises her to stow away with the family and face what comes: “’Everybody has two futures: the future you choose. Or the future that chooses you.’”
What follows is the adventure of their lives: brushes with royalty, culture-clashes, noble toddlers, unexpected alliances, shipboard romance, and of course, run-ins with the ship’s cat. It’s a nice blend of whimsy and common sense, as Helena learns to balance old and new ways and break out of settled habits. The details are priceless: mice eat off pennies and drink from thimbles, sit on spools at long yardstick tables. The Dutchess of Cheddar George has bad breath and a tiara fashioned from old wire, but an air of authority that can’t be faked: “You must take charge. You cannot leave important decisions to humans. Times come when mice must pay their way.” Readers are also treated to literary and literary-sounding allusions: “Water, water everywhere” . . . “A terrible, lonesome beauty” . . . “The unforgiving sea”. . . The romance aspect may make it more appealing for girls than boys, but it’s fun for everybody.