This post is specifically about mice, because rats are treated quite differently in children’s literature.
RATS VS MICE
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know—maybe without reason—for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice—in reality similarly harmful—are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Margaret Blount explains why mice are so popular in children’s literature:
Mice are small, secret, numerous and usually hidden. They are beautiful and neat and, one must feel, courageous to live with us so closely. Their fur-coated bodies make them endearing and strokeable. Stories about them outnumber those about any other kind of animal: perhaps it is easier to imagine them members of their own hidden social systems and to think that when out of sight they might be a part of a miniature mirror world. Their fur and appearance helps them to win our love, their apparently timorous and desperate courage, our sympathy; and they are easy to ‘dress’. It is difficult to visualise hairless or armoured creatures or those with more than four legs in a society that is in any way like our own. Mice have an almost unfair advantage. Under the imagined clothes (and mouse stories are much concerned with clothes and furniture) there is the soft but sexless strokeable layer.
If you are going to imagine a small or parallel society, mice make useful pawns for its population. No other small creatures are as appealing and versatile, from Aesop onwards, and as new versions of Aesop have always been popular — the Town and Country Mouse story is the one most often repeated — the mice will lend themselves to any fashion and copy the humans of any era, from Robert Henryson’s Scotland of the fifteenth century, to the late Victorian England of ‘Miss Browne’.[…]
When mice are not populating a mirror world, sheer charm and smallness take over — the small size often being allied to courage and resourcefulness. Mice are useful characters who, if you have a doll’s house, will come and inhabit it for you. At its most crude, the small character is the one who is forever outwitting the larger one, as in Tom and Jerry. More delicately, mice will become actors in tales where miniature life is enjoyed for its own sake. Some, feeling the pleasure of this idea, have used miniature humans for the purpose (The Borrowers, Mistress Masham’s Repose) or invented a different species (Wombles, and rather larger, Hobbits).[…]
The mouse stories, about the small hidden society, the courage of its citizens and their minuscule daintiness have a flavour of their own; often characters do not emerge. The quality of Lilliput and the delight of smallness which makes objects increase in pleasure and value in inverse proportion to their size so that a human size is useful, child’s size agreeable, doll size delightful and the doll’s house size a work of art, outweigh the other considerations of Gulliver’s first voyage. Smallness is of no particular interest without something to measure it by, and both Mary Norton’s and T.H. White’s miniature fantasies are in retreat from life of average size, and have to hide from it. Contact with humans is in some way fatal — mouse societies are the same.
MICE WERE CONSIDERED DOMESTICATED
Early children’s stories about animals were almost without exception about domesticated animals, but the one exception was mice. There were many early stories about mice. To me that suggests mice were considered as little pets, alongside cats and dogs, even if they technically could not be controlled.
MICE IN CHARLES PERRAULT’S CINDERELLA
In Charles Perrault’s version mice and rats are footmen and coachman. Kenneth Branagh made use of mice in the 2015 live action film with Lily James, whose only friends are rodents after she is banished to the attic of her own home. Both Cinderella and mice are equally downtrodden creatures.
THE ANCESTOR OF ALL MODERN MICE STORIES
In her book Animal Land, Margaret Blount describes the way in which early children’s stories starring animals were heavily didactic and usually extremely boring. But then a breakthrough story came along. It happened to star a mouse:
Dorothy Kilner’s Life and Perambulations of a Mouse, 1783, breaks new ground — it is quite exciting, full of incident and is told by the Mouse itself (the charming preface describes the Mouse dictating to the authoress) and is the first of those animal autobiographies that were to be so popular in the early years of the nineteenth century. In a way it is the prototype of all mouse stories, which are nearly always about pursuit, courage and cunning, or an integrated underground society perpetually hidden and retreating from Man, yet scoring small victories and surviving in competition with a powerful, hostile world.
The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse is a parable about filial obedience, but there is a real feeling of what it might be like to be a mouse and record one’s feelings. Dorothy Kilner’s mouse is named Nimble, and there is an odd foretaste of Peter Rabbit. Nimble’s brother and sisters are Longtail, Softdown and Brighteyes, and their mother, instead of sending them out to gather blackberries — or cheese — sends them out into the wide world with the advice: never be seen, never return to the same place twice. The prohibitions worked in much the same way as: don’t go into Mr MacGregor’s garden, don’t eat anything off the tree of knowledge. ‘She was no sooner gone than the thought of being our own directors so charmed out little hearts that we presently forgot our grief at parting from our kind parent: and impatient to use our liberty we all set forward in search of some food, or rather, of some adventure.’
The sins of disobedience being swift retribution, and all the mice, excepting Nimble, come to bad, sad ends, caught by cruel humans, traps, or cat. Their fates were not worth the bird seed and plum cake by which they were lured, but their real faults were in doing what their mother had told them not to do. There is, however, excitement and suspense in their adventurers — in evading traps, escaping from human view, episodes in gamekeeper’s cottage and garden, as well as the floor-and-closet life in the house of Mrs Artless and her daughter Ann. (The human family are observed, critically, by the mice.) The story is a great advance in making the animal, as well as the moral, interesting; one feels that this mouse of the eighteenth century is speaking across the gap in time in appropriate words: ‘ “When,” said I, addressing myself to my brother, “shall we grow wise and learn to know that certain evil always attends every deviation from what is right?” ‘
If a human soul could enter a mouse body, this is what it might have felt like. Dorothy Kilner’s moralising is more kindly than Sarah Trimmer’s; and at last Mouse and Dorothy come together when she says ‘The author cannot help in human form (as well as in that of a mouse) … warning my little readers to shun all those vices and follies …’ Affection between mouse and authoress is quite strongly felt, and there is great concern and regret at the helplessness of the mice and their sad treatment by the humans in the story. The reader is moved never to set a mouse trap — as Anna Sewell moved her contemporaries against the bearing rein.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land, 1974
Of course, Aesop was hugely influential in giving us the animal personality traits which are either utilised or inverted by modern storytellers.
See also: The Mouse and the Ichneumon and The Flea and the Mouse from 1001 Arabian Nights
HICKORY DICKORY DOCK
As you can see, it wasn’t always ‘hickory dickory’ — here we’ve got ‘hickety dickety’.
EARLY LESSER KNOWN MICE STORIES
The Mice and Their Pic-Nic by Mary Belson Elliot is ostensibly written by ‘A Looking Glass Maker’ and dates from 1810. It seems to be a self-published book. All of Belson Elliot’s stories were a blend of cheerfulness and Christianity.
Five Little Mice In A Mouse-trap by Laura E. Richards (ostensibly by ‘The Man In The Moon) is available via Project Gutenberg. The story is illustrated by Kate Greenaway, who you will definitely have heard of, owing to the award.
The Midnight Folk by John Masefield (1927)
There is a strong feeling in this book of animals and toys, all smaller than real, taking a stand against People, and of course the mice are on the right side; they are seldom evil characters. Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb are merely amoral.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
THE MICE OF BEATRIX POTTER
Beatrix Potter’s mice, drawn from life and greatly loved, have an almost physical reality. Beneath their charming clothes the mouse bodies are there, anatomically correct in every detail, with all the most pleasing mouse qualities and none of the messy ones. They are frugal, particular, busy: Mrs Tittlemouse sleeps in a tiny box bed with her tiny shoes, brush and pan ranged beside her, and all the other rooms and passages that are invaded so annoyingly by stray insects, bees, spiders and beetles, are part of the bottom of a hedgerow, and as real as all the other lairs, holes and burrows that Beatrix Potter drew. One can learn how fieldmice live by reading Mrs Tittlemouse, but there is little room for personality; smallness is all. ‘It were too tiny,’ as Bruno said, to hold as much as Margery Sharpe gives her far more humanised species. From Beatrix Potter one learns that mice are timid, clean, charming, ubiquitous and wholly delightful as a species, but their minute clothes are a pretty conceit rather than a means of self-expression. The mice on the Tailor’s dresser, who bow and curtsey so gracefully in their eighteenth-century clothes, scamper off down their hole in bare fur as soon as the Tailor’s back is turned; the clothes are only there while we look at them.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Johnny Town Mouse is more a story about different types of mice than different kinds of human. Johnny Town Mouse — in dark coat, and bowler hat — and Timmy Willie (unclothed) are house- and fieldmouse, moving to stay with each other by means of a vegetable hamper (problems of transport in mouse societies are considerable). This of course could have happened, and perhaps did, in reality, as with all Beatrix Potter’s stories. Town society is shown to be noisy, dangerous and given to what is now called Conspicuous Waste: ‘The continual noise upstairs made him so nervous that he dropped a plate. “Never mind, they don’t belong to us,” said Johnny.’ The country is too quiet for Johnny, who, after his visit to Timmy, quickly returns home.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
In a few drawings Hunca Munca has a housewifely gown to wear — it really belongs to one of the dolls — when she has stolen the doll’s house furniture for her own nest. Otherwise these two disgraceful animals wreak havoc in Mouse fashion with the help of human hands and bad temper. Few who have owned doll’s houses and pet mice have not thought of combining the two; the inevitable results are shown here — the mice like naughty children, the dolls unchangeably doll-like. The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
WALT DISNEY’S MICKEY MOUSE (1928 onwards)
Mickey is a character of the screen rather than of the page, but like any of the Disney characters, we also find Mickey Mouse picture books dotted around bookshelves.
There isn’t much particularly mouse like about Mickey Mouse, or any of the other Walt Disney animals for that matter,
but Mickey’s irrepressibility has some resemblance to a mouse’s faculty of survival and multiplication under odds. Otherwise he is the Little Man, who, Sir Osbert Sitwell insisted, has in [the 20th] century inherited the world. He is one of the few humanised animals with any sort of sex life; he and Minnie behave like a suburban couple with a stylised, jerky immutability. They are the Little Man and Little Woman pursued by forces bigger than both of them, always triumphing over their adversities as little men and younger sons should — the audience anaesthetised to violence because it is happening to a mouse who is not only their representative but an unlikely, mechanised robot figure whose human attributes are thus given armour-plating.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Mechanised behaviour is a common way of making a comic character funny. We see an adult example in Roy of The I.T. Crowd, who asks “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” every time he is required to answer the phone.
THE BRAMBLEDOWN TALES BY ERNEST A. ARIS (WW2 ERA)
There are plenty of mice in this series, full of Beatrix Potter-like species dressed up in clothes, living in a Victorian era. Willie Mouse Goes To The Moon written by Alta Tabor and illustrated by Aris is, obviously, about a mouse as protagonist. Margaret Blount compares the art of Ernest Aris to that of Harry Rountree, who both
gave their creations more personality, less of the mouse quality; Rountree’s mice drown for Mansion and Cherry Blossom polish have comedy of a gently human kind. Dressed in clothes of the era 1914 to 1925 and nearly always with shoes that were too large (to show off the greatest area of shine?) they stared with happy pride at each other’s reflections in mirrorlike floors and tables. They had the elongated, rather human faces that Beatrix Potter would never have drawn; and yet they are not by any means caricatures. Ernest Aris’s children’s books — mainly about mice, though other small creatures occur — were written and illustrated about the time of the First World War. The mouse children have a ragamuffin look, rather like the original Bisto Kids, again with clothes and shoes rather too large for them in the children’s styles of 1916 — boy mice in rather baggy trousers, girl mice in smocked pinafores. In their field and hedgerow settings they ar very ‘real’, but their eyes are human. Drawing of wild flowers, moths, leaves, insects and other animals is impeccable and beautiful and the stories have a slightly romantic element quite lacking in Beatrix Potter. Ernest Aris let his mice leave home to seek their fortunes, or a mysterious Good Fairy, or let them be enticed into a dark wood by a stag beetle bent on vengeance — menacingly and accurately drawn but not in the right decade to be the one that frightened C.S. Lewis as a child.
BEN AND ME BY ROBERT LAWSON (1939)
Back in 1939 Robert Lawson (1891-1957) had written Ben and Me, a life of Benjamin Franklin as told by his mouse Amos, to whom Ben seems to have been indebted for some of his brightest ideas. In 1952 Lawson added Mr Revere and I, the story of Paul Revere’s ride and other matters as told by his lady horse Scheherazade, the late pride of His Majesty’s 14th Regiment of Foot. (I cannot bring myself to call this distinguished quadruped a mare.) And in 1956 came Captain Kidd’s Cat, narrated in the salty style of an old sea-cat by McDermot, whose drink is warm milk and Jamaica rum. According to McDermot, Kidd was a meek-and-mild man really; and McDermot should know, for “didn’t I sell the ruby ring out of my left ear to buy him a decent clean shirt for the hanging?” These are hearty, humorous stories, based on a splendid idea and a sufficiency of research, and they are accompanied by the author’s own hearty, humorous drawings.
John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
STUART LITTLE BY E.B. WHITE (1945)
In a way, Stuart Little can be seen as an allegory for disability. In the house, everything is a challenge for him, due to his small size. He has to develop devices for turning on taps and so on.
White’s Stuart Little (1945) takes the idea of animals-as-people to its logical conclusion. Stuart is not only a mouse; he is also the child of a human famly. The book is a funny one with serious undertones. The comedy is partly Lilliputian, as when Stuart takes the helm of a model yacht in a race on the pond, and partly derived from a deadpan presentation of the absurd:
The doctor was delighted with Stuart and said that it was very unusual for an American family to have a mouse […] Everything seemed to be all right, and Mrs Little was pleased to get such a good report.
“Feed him up!” said the doctor cheerfully, as he left.
But the story ends in what appears to be midstream, with Stuart searching for the varnished bird Margalo whom he loves. Perhaps the ending is right; Stuart’s is a quest for freedom and beauty, and such a quest is never completed.
John Rowe Townsend, Written for Children
Stuart Little is a good example of a mouse story which is not kind to cats. The cat character, Snowball, is a bully and a sneak.
Garth Williams did a great job of drawing the mice, in which no two characters look the same. Many are drawn from a human point of view showing Stuart as a minute dot.
MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE BY T.H. WHITE (1947)
PRINCE CASPIAN BY C.S. LEWIS (1951)
Reepicheep was one of the Talking Mice of Narnia, and was their leader. He was also one of Caspian’s most loyal and bravest knights. His second-in-command was Peepiceek.
Although Reepicheep is described as over a foot high, he is small — always the joke when it comes to mouse characters — and their personalities are in direct opposition to this. They overcome impossible odds and have huge hearts. Here, too, the mice have oversized courage and high self-esteem. And at the end of the book, Reepicheep even answers Aslan back. No other animal could bring themselves to do that. (See: The Lion and the Mouse, an Aesop’s Fable.)
The same joke is used in Who Sank The Boat by Pamela Allen, which itself comes from one of Aesop’s Fables: A variety of huge creatures get into a boat but it only sinks after a mouse jumps in. Mice are tiny but they are influential.
Mice are the most badass race, and the only race that gets a racial storyline of its own. All other races of talking animals are given speech as a divine gift at the dawn of time. The mice, however, are so small and insignificant that they are overlooked by Aslan himself. However…
Moving on to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the mice earn their rank among the ascended animals by making a heroic attempt at Save Your Deity. In that story, mice chew off the ropes that bind the corpse of Aslan. As a result, mice are promoted to that rank of talking animal, and many years latter the mice are considered among the most brave and honorable of all the animals.
In Prince Caspian the mouse militia fearlessly go up against far larger enemies, routinely taking them out by being ignored in the fray and chopping them from underneath. Culminating in the Heroic Sacrifice of their commander Reepicheep and his army’s quite special way of dealing with that situation.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep is one of the main charactes, and arguably the bravest of them all. Lucy works quite hard to resist her urge of cuddling him, since she understand that such behaviour from her would hurt his pride. The local Jerkass human taunts him for his size, but he quickly teaches the far larger human to fear him. Also, while the other heroes just happen to be on that journey for miscellaneous reasons, Reepicheep is the one doing the journey as a holy quest. It’s worthy of note that when the voyage reaches the borders of Aslan’s Country, Reepicheep sails on while the others turn back, making him the only Narnian as far as we know to bodily enter heaven, and probably the only mortal anywhere since Elijah.
THE MOUSEWIFE BY RUMER GODDEN (1951)
Day in and day out the dutiful mousewife works alongside her mousehusband. The house of Miss Barbara Wilkinson, where the Mouses make their home, is a nice house and the mousewife is for the most part happy with her lot—and yet she yearns for something more. But what? Her husband, for one, can’t imagine.
Then an odd and exotic new creature, a turtledove, is brought into the house, and the mousewife is fascinated. The mousewife makes friends with the strange dove, who is kept in a cage but who tells her about things no housemouse has ever imagined, blue skies, tumbling clouds, tall trees, and far horizons, the memory of which haunt the dove in his captivity. The dove’s tales fill the mousewife with wonder and drive her to take daring action.
Stories which combine the three strains — small size, busy courage and daring and the multitudinous life that makes it so easy to imagine mouse towns or societies near us and yet just out of sight — are the most successful and memorable. Rumer Godden’s The Mousewife, retold and developed from Dorothy Wordsworth’s story of the friendship between the mouse and the pigeon, though short, has all three. The story is touching, beautifully told and has deep human implications. The Mousewife does nothing that mice do not, or could not do, stealing the food from the dove’s cage and eventually — her presence tolerated — flies away. The human parallel is not explicit, yet it is there. The mouse is free (mice in stories usually are, even in the Miss Bianca books — the bars of her cage are far enough apart for her to slip through) and the dove is trapped. Yet the Mousewife has a routine, cramped, circumscribed existence; there are no cats or traps, but there is no true freedom either. The Mousewife’s husband is even worse, because his mind is cramped, too. ‘I think about cheese,’ he says. ‘Why don’t you think about cheese?’ or ‘The proper place for a mousewife is in her hole, or coming out for crumbs and frolic with me.’
The busy little Mousewife, so occupied with foraging and care, ends by having some conception of what the outside world is like through the dove’s escape. Freedom, flight, wind, stars, have a meaning that the mouse can guess at, even if she can never experience it. One cannot say that Dorothy Wordsworth, or Rumer Godden have ‘used’ mice to say things about humans; the mice were there first, and one can read into the story what one wishes.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
OH FOR A MOUSELESS HOUSE! BY URSULA MORAY WILLIAMS (1954)
I know this author from Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat which my family owned on cassette tape. I fell asleep to it many times.
Moray Williams also wrote a now hard-to-find mouse story in which the mouse society co-exists with the human one, and is dependent on it.
The story combines a very human situation with the charm of a story such as The Tailor of Gloucester. Mice give humans delicate, diligent and multi-fingered help. […] The society is fairly complex in that there are two conflicting armies: a delinquent group of large mice from down the hill who usurp the homes of the house mice and drive them into the church, where the church mice, spare, thin, respectable and hard working, always ready to listen to sermons, give them asylum. The big struggle between the two sets, involving the Vicar, parishioners, the Vicar’s nephew and formidable Mother, is worked out with some art. The church is deserted by humans, except for the Vicar’s solitary Sunday sermons. From a protected playground — ‘the older church mice realised that whole generations of mouse children had never seen a trap’ — it turns into a big strugglefield: the church mice with their pew and pulpit families and Bible names, and church council or Mouncil, wearing themselves thin with their efforts to tidy up, scour, sew and polish; the huge, wicked invaders, laconic dustbin loungers with their boss, Bucky, trying to get in, and when succeeding, turning the church into a fairground.
Sympathetic but unwitting humans become agents for one side or the other as the siege is waged with attacks, storming, starvation and trickery; the gallant defenders faithful to the last against the wicked mouse Baron. The human plot — a vanished congregation, stirred up and shamed into returning by the Vicar’s dragooning mother — becomes insignificant beside the story of the invaders and the brave last stand of the church mice. No characters emerge and there are few domestic details but a strong feeling that the house and the human past where the church is a medieval castle under siege. The mouse doings are as archaic as the stone crusader in the aisle and the church is similarly out of date. No message is perhaps intended. Animal societies that are in tune with topical events are quite rare.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
MISS BIANCA BOOKS BY MARJERY SHARPE (1959)
The mice in these books co-exist with human ones.
The mice in this story created the widely respected Prisoners’ Aid Society of Mice. The task of this benevolent society is to befriend human prisoners in their cells, and perform daring rescue bids. As this story opens, the Chairwoman of the Society is proposing the rescue of a Norwegian poet who is being held in grim conditions in the Black Castle.
These days (since a reprinting in 1994) these books are known as The Rescuers series.
Margaret Blount points out that this series is very like The Borrowers, in many ways.
Miss Bianca’s courage and achievements grow with each book — her character arc takes place across an entire series, in other words. As a character, she is ‘the perfect gentlewoman’.
Garth Williams, who Blount describes as ‘the Rembrandt of animal portrait artists’ depicted the mice in this book quite differently from how he depicted Stuart Little or Templeton from Charlotte’s Web. He draws no clothes on them, except for the odd hat.
He’s good at crowd scenes, and ‘all good mouse stories should have at least one crowd scene’.
Margery Sharpe’s Miss Bianca is a female Pimpernel in a minute, mock-heroic saga of imprisonments, escapes and rewarding of virtue and overcoming of villains by nimble wits, resource, courage and patience — all the traditional weapons of the weak against the strong. Miss Bianca adds to these something unique in animal stories and unfashionable as a virtue; the integrity bestowed by breeding and the discipline of perfect manners and strict adherence to etiquette. Of course, it is human etiquette; it always is, even in The Jungle Books. Only, interestingly, is it Animal in that most human story The Wind In The Willows where etiquette is shown to mean non-reference to death, pain, unpleasantness, or even yesterday.
THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE BY GEORGE SELDEN AND GARTH WILLIAMS (1960)
A cat, a mouse, and a cricket. All of them living in a nook at a newspaper stand in Times Square.
THE RALPH S. MOUSE SERIES BY BEVERLY CLEARY (1965 onwards)
Living in a knothole in a hotel room, young Ralph has seen plenty of families come and go, some more generous with their crumbs than others. But when young Keith and his parents check in to the hotel, Ralph gets his first chance to check out. He has always fantasized about venturing beyond the second floor, maybe even outside. Curiosity overcomes caution, and Ralph must have a go at Keith’s toy motorcycle. Soon, the headstrong mouse finds himself in a pickle, when all he wanted was to ride a motorcycle.
HERE COMES THURSDAY! BY MICHAEL BOND (1966)
Apart from the even more popular Paddington Bear books, Michael Bond write a whole series of Thursday books.
Michael Bond uses [the same plot as Beatrix Potter’s Johnny Town Mouse] in one of the Thursday books when an up-to-date American mouse tries to turn a village shop into a supermarket — at mouse level — and everyone decides that it was better as it was before. But Mr Bond’s Mouse Society is fairly secure — there is little peril from cats or humans.[…]
Mouse speed, desperation and courage are distinct from mouse charm, and develop when the mouse society interacts with the human one, the braver mice making forays and doing deeds of great daring, disregarding the perils of humans and cats much in the same way as professional soldiers come to disregard the possible perils of big struggle. There is a bouncing comedy in the situation which comes out perfectly in the Thursday books and with more subtle wit in the Miss Bianca saga.[…]
The mice copy the human world, enjoy cheeky exploitation of human devices. At times they get their copy right and at times better; sometimes the copy is not quite right in its details, things go wrong and the mouse society is in hazard (their police force seems to be lacking, for one thing; there is plenty of successful crime which is, in the end, put down by ingenuity rather than law). Thursday, a mouse with far to go (he comes from a home for Waifs and Strays not the Church of England Children’s Society), is adopted into the Peck family who have children for every letter of the alphabet and live in an organ loft. Thursday is an adventurous mouse with none of the traditional mouse timidity (which is really not true of actual mice — they are bold; and speed rather than shyness is their defence). He leads the Peck family into various escapades which, while being human in nature, do not depend on the real existence of humans other than an ever watchful reference to the giant race from whom the mice get their ideas and sustenance. Characters are few, action is more important than detail. Mr and Mrs Peck, heads of the family, are almost as unaccented as Mr and Mrs Brown of the Paddington books. The Thursday stories deal with such aspects of human life as television, package tours, a moon rocket, a floating holiday camp, car-and-boat building, opposition by a gangland racketeer. Why write about mice when what pleases you most — and this pleasure comes through very strongly in the stories — is cars and boats, escapes from death, adventures in gangland and gadgets that work with a kind of slapstick ingenuity?[…]
However far-fetched the incidents — though always founded on the brighter, more exciting aspects of human fact and fiction — the message is always quite clear: Copy the humans too closely and you will come to grief. Make casual use of their inventions and institutions and you can live happily in your mouse sub-world, untouched and immune, as long as you keep out of sight.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Blount compares Michael Bond’s Thursday books to Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories in tone, but in message they seem to be very much like that in The Borrowers and in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
Blount points out that this story is a bit of an exception when it comes to mice stories however:
Thursday’s adventurous masculinity is an exception in the mouse world. Most of the best mouse stories have been written by women, and heroines are the rule.
ANATOLE SERIES BY EVE TITUS (1966 onwards)
Eve Titus’s Anatole manages to combine cheeky thieving with being a human friend — a situation which is not at all unknown. Anatole and his friends are contemporary characters [ie 1970s] — wherever humans are, there they will be. Their adventures are a comic mixture of fantasy and mouse action. Anatole is an important mouse, friend of humans, chief taste at Duval’s cheese factory. He changes his apparent size at will, with no questions asked — he and his wife and six children can go on a cycling holiday or dash to and fro on their bicycles to round up smuggling criminals. But they can use their small size to hide, explore and listen, and throughout are seldom seen. They write notes to the police and live in a mouse village of miniature French houses — a real Snug Town that is somewhere in limbo, or hidden; no cupboards, wainscots or cellars for them. This, to me, has neither one kind of reality nor the other, and for all its amusement has not the true charm of the genre.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD BY RUSSELL HOBAN (1967)
Critics of children’s literature love talking about this book.
NEED A HOUSE? CALL MS. MOUSE! BY GEORGE MENDOZA (1981)
This is an early feminist book in which a female does a traditionally male job. You don’t see much use of the term ‘Ms’ in picture books these days, though. The term has since fallen out of fashion a bit, as has keeping one’s ‘maiden’ name after marriage.
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE BY LAURA JOFFE NUMEROFF AND FELICIA BOND (1985)
If a hungry little traveler shows up at your house, you might want to give him a cookie. If you give him a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. He’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache, and then he’ll ask for a pair of scissors to give himself a trim….
This was the first book chosen in the pilot season of Reading Rainbow, which ran for many seasons and is currently playing in Netflix, over 20 years later. There are many more books in this series of the If You Give a(n) X a Y snowclone. This book has been interpreted as an argument against social welfare.
THE MICE BOOKS BY TIM DAVIS (1990s)
RICHARD PECK’S MIDDLE GRADE MOUSE BOOKS (2011, 2013)
Secrets at sea was published 2011.
A mix of Upstairs, Downstairs and The Borrowers, this is the first animal story from the Richard Peck.
Helena is big-sister mouse to three younger siblings, living a snug and well-fed life within the ancient walls of the Cranston family home. When the Cranston humans decide to sail away to England to find a husband for one of their daughters, the Cranston mice stow away in the name of family solidarity. And so begins the scamper of their lives as Helena, her siblings, and their humans set sail on a life-changing voyage into the great world of titled humans . . . and titled mice, and surprise endings for all.
The Mouse With The Question Mark Tail was published 2013.
Marketed at fans of The Tale of Desperaux, A Little Princess, and Stuart Little, this is about an orphan, who happens to be a mouse. This mouse book is separate from Peck’s first, though seems to be set in the same setting.
The smallest mouse in London’s Royal Mews is such a little mystery that he hasn’t even a name. And who were his parents? His Aunt Marigold, Head Needlemouse, sews him a uniform and sends him off to be educated at the Royal Mews Mouse Academy. There he’s called “Mouse Minor” (though it’s not quite a name), and he doesn’t make a success of school. Soon he’s running for his life, looking high and low through the grand precincts of Buckingham Palace to find out who he is and who he might become.
THE DIMWOOD CHRONICLES
THE WITCHES BY ROALD DAHL
WALTER THE LAZY MOUSE BY MARJORIE FLACK
Laziness isn’t part of the generally understood mouse personality, so this book is a deliberate subversion.
MARATHON MOUSE BY AMY DIXON AND SAM DENLINGER
Athletic mice feel more usual than lazy ones.
MAUS BY ART SPIEGELMAN
In Art Spiegelman‘s Maus, a narrative of the author’s father’s struggle to survive the Holocaust, the Jews are drawn as mice. Nazis are drawn as cats, and the Allied troops (particularly Americans) are drawn as dogs.
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE MOUSE KING
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX BY KATE DI CAMILLO
MRS FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH BY ROBERT C. O’BRIEN (1971)
The notion underlying Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) is that laboratory rats, raised to a high standard of intelligence and with the ageing process inhibited, might plan to escape and set up an unratlike community of their own. But the story that embodies this notion is told in retrospect by one of the rats involved, in the course of a rather ordinary “outer” story about Mrs Frisby the fieldmouse and the rescue of her family from the ploughing-down of their home. The construction is awkward, and there is a lack of memorable characters, but there are some nice touches of detail. Look at the farmer’s cat Dragon, as seen from a mouse’s height:
He was enormous, with a huge broad head and a large mouth full of curving fangs, needle-sharp. He had seven claws on each foot and a thick, furry tail, which lashed angrily from side to side. In color he was orange and white, with glaring yellow eyes; and when he leaped to kill he gave a high, strangled scream that froze his victims where they stood.
John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
ABEL’S ISLAND BY WILLIAM STIEG (1976)
Did you know that the film franchise Shrek! was based on a book?
William Steig (November 14, 1907 – October 3, 2003) was a prolific American cartoonist, sculptor, and, late in life, an illustrator and writer of popular children’s books. Best known for the picture booksSylvester and the Magic Pebble, Abel’s Island, and Doctor De Soto, he was also the creator of Shrek!, which inspired the film series of the same name.
William Stieg also wrote Abel’s Island, starring a mouse:
The hero of Abel’s Island, by William Stieg (1976), is a perfect gentleman — surely a Bostonian — as well as being a mouse. (Steig, being his own illustrator, has no difficulty in reconciling these characteristics.) It is the summer of 1907. Separated from his lovely wife Amanda and cast away on an island in the middle of a rier, Abel sets to work, resourcefully and sagaciously, to get himself to the mainland; but a full year passes and he is a ragged mouse Crusoe before at last he is restored to Amanda’s arms.
John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
A RAT’S TALE BY TOR SEIDLER AND FRED MARCELLINO (1986)
The humanized-animal fantasies of White, Selden and Steig, gentle and amiable as they are, may be seen as establishing a modern tradition which is sophisticated and distinctively American. Though they do not fall into either of the traps of avuncular condescension or of winking to the adults, there is a dryness in their wit. It appears at its driest in A Rat’s Tale, by Tor Seidler (1986), in which Montague Mad-Rat, member of a New York City rat family that is mocked for its artistic learnings, wins acclaim and the paw of the aristocratic Isabel Moberly-Rat when his sea-shell paintings fetch real dollars and buy off a human threat of mass rat-poisoning. One does not have to be unduly cynical to suspect a satirical sub-text. Art, it is clear, is not to be despised; it can be profitable, prestigious, and an aid to successful wooing.
John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
CORALINE BY NEIL GAIMAN (2002)
Neil Gaiman makes use of the fact that, in stories for children, mice often come from a parallel world via some sort of portal. In this story, only mice and children are able to go back and forth between the two worlds, linking mice with children, as is common in mice stories.
SHHH! LITTLE MOUSE BY PAMELA ALLEN (2009)
Will the little grey mouse find something to eat, or will he wake the sleeping cat?