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.

Body of Knowledge by Yours Truly

muse-magazine-february-2016Today, I’m as happy as a maggot in pus because my short story, “Body of Knowledge” appears in the the February 2016 issue of Muse Magazine for Kids!

Based on true events in 19th century Dublin, the hair-raising tale follows four teens on a midnight errand to rob a grave! If I’ve done my job as a storyteller, then Robert Knox, Astley Cooper, and John Hunter are rolling in their graves (joyfully, of course)!

Warning: readers who do not like gore are sure to find this story just “offal.”

Artist Duncan Long provided a haunting set of illustrations to accompany the story!


Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

wein_codenameverityWein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. New York: Hyperion, 2012. Print.

Genre: YA historical fiction

Summary: World War II historical fiction of the most gripping kind! Either the protagonist, Julie (AKA “Verity”) spills her guts about her spying exploits or her Gestapo torturers will…well, spill her guts for her!

Critique: This book is an epistolary thriller (thought you’d never see that combo, right?) assembled from hotel stationary scraps, prescription cards, and any other pulpy item around that can be scrounged up. The more the pieces assemble Verity’s confessions, the deeper readers dig into her friendship with female pilot, Maddie. Eventually, readers discover that Maddie flew the plane that crashed landed Verity right into enemy hands. And just when the narrative reveals Maddie’s fate since the crash, readers lose contact with Verity!

The motivations driving the characters are electrically urgent and starkly primal! The historical facts are cunningly deployed. The pace is a swift, cruel dive into constant unknowns and dangers. The pages might as well be coated in super glue — no way can you put this book down!

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr-all-the-light-we-cannot-seeDoerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.

Genre: (adult) WWII fiction

Summary: A pear-shaped diamond known as the Sea of Flames has the power to bless its keeper with eternal life, while also cursing the keeper’s loved ones with misery and death. The diamond wraps together the lives of the evil man who seeks the diamond, the blind girl who longs to be rid of it, and the boy in love with her—all this with World War II raging on around them.

Critique: Readers who would never in a million years pick up a World War his-fic novel should nab this one off the shelf. Doerr skillfully elixirs fact, mystery, speculation, and mysticism until a fresh mythological slant on World War II steams up out of his cauldron. (No wonder it won a Pulitzer!)

Short, clipped sentences packed with spicy imagery and alluring enallages are the hallmarks of Doerr’s style. His semi-omniscient authorial eye cuts anywhere at any time, much like the opening and closing moments of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), where the voice over accompanies the camera as it dashes here, there, everywhere to deliver seemingly random simultaneous occurrences. Jarring at first, the overall effect becomes hypnotic and inescapable. Each short chapter (1-2 pages) balances alternating perspectives of the evil man, the blind girl, and the genius boy, as well as several other supporting characters. Doerr’s exploration of sightlessness is a dessert of cross-pollinated sensations. But, so too, is his portrayal of the rabid curiosity of mental brilliance, and the tranquil patience of evil.

Besides the resonant language, the structure of the novel also cartwheels with the unexpected. Essentially, the book opens and punctuates its major sections with The End. Right from the start, the climax unspools before the reader’s eyes, but only a moment, at most. Then the narrative retreats four years and moves slowly forward. Then, the climax returns, advancing a few more precious moments. The tension ratchets. Then it’s back to the past, only by three years now. Over and over, this cycle loops. The effect is riveting. The reader knows what is going to happen, but not how!