The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

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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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What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-Stars

In this edition of my holiday gift guide for book geeks and rabid readers, I bring you the perfect book for the young Tolkien fan, the Beowulf-to-be (boy or girl) who loves an epic tale with a teary twist woven in.

Schmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)

 

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-StarsSchmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)

 

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

origamiyodaAngleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books LLC, 2010. MP3.

Genre: middle grade novel

Summary: Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami Yoda finger puppet. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Tommy wants to believe Yoda’s powers are real because he wants to ask the biggest most important question of all: Does Sara like him (and, thus, should he ask her to the dance)? But there are lots of reasons to be skeptical.

This is the first in a really fun series. Star Wars fans and crafty kids will enjoy many of the newly released supplemental books packed with lessons in origami and journal doodling.

Critique: The story is told like a Rashomon, pitting multiple points of view against each other. Lots of characters contribute their testimonies to Tommy’s casebook. Some submit text messages. Others record audio. Other’s just doodle (an effect that doesn’t come across in MP3 very well). The yae’s battle the nay’s until the reader is as unsure as Tommy. Angleberger excels at capturing the middle grade voice and attitude. The tone is light and fun. Everyone has a happy ending. Like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Angleberger assigns to Dwight the classic symptoms of autism, however, he never names the condition outright. As a result, Angleberger misses a prime opportunity to discuss a developmental difference that impacts many kids and families in his target audience.