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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Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

This book invites the imagination to scoop more out of the world building.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Spoon. Illus. Scott Magoon. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young spoon wishes he could do some of the cool tasks other utensils tackle. Cut bread like knives. Lasso spaghetti like forks. Tweeze sushi like chopsticks. Meanwhile, all the other utensils admire little Spoon and all the amazing meals he dives into!

Critique: Magoon’s illustrations are straightforward in their approach to anthropomorphizing kitchen utensils. Step one: draw a utensil. Step two: draw lines for arms, hands, legs, feet, and faces. Luckily, the world building is much more creative. Particularly giggle-worthy is the full spread depicting Spoon’s entire family—sooo many spoons cleverly assembled, representing diversity in age, gender, and culture!

Rosenthal’s text is likewise straightforward as it ladles out Spoon’s experiences. What struck me most was how Spoon never gets the scoop on how the entire utensil community admires him as much as he does them. In some ways, that is an important life lesson. Be happy with what you are regardless of whether or not other beings approve or disapprove (…unless you are a budding Jeffrey Dahmer or a Bernie Madoff…).

When Spoon’s existential distress keeps him up at night, his loving parents invite him to bed to…er…spoon. Which, when you consider from a world building point of view is kinda weird. Imagine having your son Wilber come to bed to, well, wilber with you.

Ultimately, the story seems to have sprung exclusively from that one spread: a distressed spoon spoons other spoons! awwww! Usually, stories are constructed so the end justifies the means, but this one attempts to the work the equation in the opposite direction. The resulting narrative feels a tad measured, maybe even strained, but not well rounded.

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty

Is our identity—defining it and embracing it—an avenue to an enriching existence or is it merely an evolutionary survival strategy?

Petty, Dev. I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. Illus Mike Boldt. New York: Doubleday for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young frog wants to be anything other than wet, slimy, and full of bugs. He wants to be a warm and cuddly kind of creature until a wise wolf shows him the perks of warts and all.

Critique: Boldt’s illustrations are wacky…or, more accurately, out-of-wacky. He uses bold strokes, bright colors stretched into dramatic disproportion. The text on the page is similarly stretched. It wasn’t clear if this style was used perfunctory (to cover more of the page) or thematically (to enhance the text with subliminal visual meanings/implications/symbols).

The narrative follows a dialogue between the young frog and his dad, whose standard answer is: You can’t be this or that; you’re a frog. Around the midpoint, poppa frog switches up the response and asks what his son does not like about being a frog. They then encounter a wolf who points out that he would never eat a wet, slimy, fly-filled frog. Bunnies on the other hand…

In general, the story felt shy of essential substance and worldbuilding. For example: wouldn’t a young frog be a tadpole/polliwog? Based on the resolution, the theme for young readers to adopt seemed to be: to become yourself or accept yourself is only an evolutionary survival strategy. Your intrinsic identity keeps you alive. I suspect it does do that, but it also does so much more.