The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux.

Peck, Richard. The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail. Illus. Kelly Murhpy. New York: Puffin Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade historical fiction

Summary: Days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a nameless mouse runs away from the bullies at school. From then on, he is swept into a misadventure maelstrom. The book jacket will tell you he has a plan to speak with the Queen and that he goes on an epic adventure, but do not believe it…

Critique: At first, I thought I’d adore the nameless mouse whose tail kinked into a question mark shape. He was cheeky, mouthing off to bullies and overly disciplinarian adults. But as the narrative continued, I could not fathom how such a mouse could lack so much gumption. Once the catalyst shoots him out of his A-world and into the B-world, the little mouse does next to nothing unless another character tells him to. He either whines about his miserable circumstances or he watches the world pass by.

According to the text, his observant nature stems from that tail. He’s curious. He’s full of questions, like why doesn’t he have a name and who were his parents and wouldn’t Queen Victoria know the answers because wise monarchs who have sat on the thrown for 60 years ought to know everything?

The mouse formulates this last notion in chapter 3 and the book jacket would have you believe that his yearning to see the Queen is what sparks an “epic adventure.” But as I warned you, don’t believe it. The ensuing larks around and in Buckingham Palace are not the result of his deliberate actions or choices to fulfill the desire. Instead, he travels about like a staticky sock, clinging to whatever (or whomever) happens to be closest. He attaches to a cat in the stables, then a horse out for a ride, then palace guard mice capture him and enlist him in service, then bats capture him, and then andthenandthen…

He remembers his “desire” to see the queen on page 88 and not again until somewhere around page 146. He is what screenwriter Blake Snyder calls a Johnny Entropy. A lead character with no lead.

Writers, beware this protagonist. You’ll know when one has snuck into your story because all the other characters will have to luggage him around or tell him what to do, when he ought to know, with a bottle rocket’s urgency, what he wants.

Not wishing to be disingenuous, I should also point out that the nameless mouse could not have exerted much agency or autonomy even if he tried because he lives like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Everyone watches him always. Everyone is in on a secret and, thus, allows no harm to come to the mouse. They keep him on their chosen path and prevent any and all goings astray. Why? No spoilers here. They just do.

And its that cloistering the smallest individual from independence that makes me wonder how young readers respond to this book. Their entire lives resemble a sort of Truman Show. Always watched and passed from one to the next adult sentinel. They follow a predetermined script. Do they resonate with the nameless mouse or do they wish he’d rebel, elude his keepers and truly strike out on his own, as Truman does.

Which leads us back to the opening prompt: imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux for it is one worth writing.

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The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

childs_animaldialoguesChilds, Craig. The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. New York: Little, Brown, and Young, 2007. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs is a naturalist and award-winning writer. He has spent his entire life prodding the invisible tissues that connect man, animal, earth, time, life, and death. This brings together a collection of striking essays, musings, and mementos describing his encounters with all kinds of creatures and beasts. Cougars, bears, jaguars, elk, ravens, fish, sharks, owls, even the common cat and domestic dog.

Critique: Rather than a critique of this book, I offer would-be readers a warning. Do not read this book if you are neither ready nor willing to see the world in a whole new way. Do not glance at a single page or paragraph unless you can accept that the universe does not operate in the way you have always presumed. Through Childs’ eyes you will experience a world were waterfalls in the distance are loose strings and threads. Shorelines are the haggling grounds between oceans and mountains. Time is simultaneously vast and puny.

Language is different with Childs, too. He admits early on he has to use a sort of different language to convey what it is like to come into contact with animals the way he has. The experience is a lot like trying to build the sky out of sticks, he says. But you have been warned: Childs is incredibly skilled with his sticks!

Be careful, else you’ll start to speak, think, and feel differently. You too may realize dawn is not a time, but a color you can feel on your face. You may notice how “blood jacks into muscles” when you stand toe-to-claw with a hungry predator. Perhaps a growl or roar will feel like an animals voice breaking the air on your back. Or how your body transforms into “a single muscle sliding like pure light between the trees” as you run with, or maybe away from, an animal.

What’s that? You’re going to nab this book and start reading it? Even though nature is savage and full of frightening beasts — the most horrifying beast of all being the one you keep locked inside your own skin, denied the feral pleasures of sun, air, chase, and dark??? Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell and Donna M. Jackson

O’Connell, Caitlin and Donna M. Jackson. The Elephant Scientist. New York: Houghton Miffling Books for Children, 2011. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction (photo) picture book

Summary: This is a true story. Caitlin grows up with a love for science. She studies bugs, but then gets a chance to study elephants in Africa. One day, no joke, her supreme knowledge of bugs leads to several breakthrough discoveries on how elephants communicate. Like: elephants may “talk” through their feet! She applies her knowledge to save elephants!

Critique: 2012 Sibert Honor Book. The beginning feels a little slow. Readers are introduced to Caitlin and her studies, but are not given an emotional reason to invest in this woman or her story. But then she gets to Africa and everything shifts. Caitlin must find a way to keep elephants out of the farmers’ crops without injuring anyone–elephant or farmer. And that’s the moment where the story really sparks! Caitlin’s dilemma is pressing and difficult to solve. From this point on, the book rollicks alongside cleverly embedded information on elephants, animal communication, and conservation efforts.