Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective. Continue reading “Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean”

Doctor De Soto by William Steig (1982)

doctor-de-soto-cover

LITERARY INFLUENCES

Doctor De Soto is an example of a picturebook that owes a lot to Aesop, with the characterisation of the mice and the fox already firmly in place. Mice don’t play as prominent part in the fables as you might think, but foxes are one of the main five, along with countrymen, dogs, donkeys and lions.

That said, there have since been many, many stories about mice in 20th Century children’s literature.

There’s a good reason why Dr De Soto is a mouse and not a rat:

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

But the influences on Doctor De Soto go back even further than that.

The main value in making a character small is that he immediately becomes more heroic. Jack climbs a bean stalk to battle a giant, and he must use his brain, not his brawn, to win this fight. So too must Odysseus, who defeats the Cyclops by clinging to the underbelly of a sheep and telling the Cyclops that the one who blinded him is named Norman.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

There are also shades of fairytales in here, such as The Gingerbread Man. Readers will already know that tale, and therefore know how very perilous it is to approach a fox’s mouth end. Dr De Soto is obliged to jump right in.

THE NAME DE SOTO

I wondered if ‘De Soto’ had any significance.

There is a famous Hernando De Soto in American history — a Spanish explorer born at the end of the 1400s. I can’t say for sure if Stieg intended readers to make any connection to this historical figure, but I do note that Hernando de Soto’s North American expedition ranged throughout the southeastern United States searching for gold. Enter, the possibly symbolic gold tooth? Like Hernando, the mouse dentist is undertaking a perilous task.

But the similarities end there, really. Unlike the mouse, the historical figure was not someone known to bring peoples together.

De Soto was instrumental in contributing to the development of a hostile relationship between many Native American tribes and Europeans. When his expedition encountered hostile natives in the new lands, more often than not it was his men who instigated the clashes.

Wikipedia

STORYWORLD OF DOCTOR DE SOTO

I don’t know about you, but 1982 doesn’t feel that long ago to me. That is, until I pick up a children’s book published in 1982 and realise that in 2016 good publishers are no longer putting out stories about professional men and their assistant wives. We might even say that picturebooks are even ahead of the culture in this regard; in our village the pharmacist indeed has an assistant who happens to be his wife, but it’s great that we’re moving at least smashing the glass ceiling in picturebooks, mostly.

As is usual in stories, it is the female character’s compassion which puts the goodies in a dangerous situation in the first place.

“Please!” the fox wailed. “Have mercy, I’m suffering!” And he wept so bitterly it was painful to see.

“Just a moment,” said Doctor De Soto. “That poor fox,” he whispered to his wife. “What shall we do?”

“Let’s risk it,” said Mrs De Soto. She pressed the buzzer and let the fox in.

Doctor De Soto, William Steig

Mrs De Soto is referred to only as the wife or the assistant. She brings equipment on trays and stands behind her husband.
Mrs De Soto is referred to only as the wife or the assistant. She brings equipment on trays and stands behind her husband.

That’s not to say we aren’t clinging on to traditional gender roles by rehashing without much in the way of re-visioning the same old fairytales with their conservative gender roles.

This is a tale of minatures, in which tiny animals have rigged workarounds to exist in a world much too big for their bodies.

dr-de-soto-double-page-spread-donkey

dr-de-soto-fox-bends-down

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like all mice in children’s books, the De Sotos’ main weakness is their small size. They need to use their wits in order to survive against predators.

DESIRE

The De Sotos want to help others by mending teeth and keeping pain at bay. They are an altruistic pair.

OPPONENT

The fox, whose natural inclination is to eat mice.

Part of the humour of this story comes from the (adult) reader’s real-life experience of a dentist. Dentists are known to regularly request a wider mouth. Dr De Soto does the same, but here it’s because the fox really wants to eat the dentist, not because his mouth is simply getting a bit tired!

We see the power of this mighty opponent foreshadowed in the details of the illustration, for example the fanged dentures sitting on the bench in the dental surgery.

dr-de-soto-fang-dentures

We’re also got humour in the Freudian idea that when a patient is under the gas and muttering nonsense, that this nonsense dream is somehow an insight into their true thoughts. So when the fox mutters “Mmm, yummy,” the mice are clued into his intentions.

PLAN

We don’t see what the De Sotos’ plan is — instead we see them lying awake in bed worrying about it.

BATTLE

Since the reader isn’t in on the plan, the fox’s return for his gold tooth is fraught with tension. Stieg amps up the tension by having the fox comically chomp down ‘as a joke’.

SELF READER-REVELATION

As it turns out, the De Sotos glue the fox’s teeth shut and this will last a good few days.

The reader realises that even if you are powerless you can run on wits.

dr-de-soto-fox-is-pleased

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Doctor De Soto and his assistant had out-foxed the fox. They kissed each other and took the rest of the day off.

Implied after the story ends: The fox is able to open his jaw in a few days’ time, but by this time he is well enough away from the mouse dentists that his natural instincts allow him to leave them alone to continue their good work.

Note that altitude is symbolic in this final image — the fox is on his way down (in power) while the small mice stand at the top, as if on a victory podium.

dr-de-soto-descends-stairs

Rats In Children’s Literature

rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.

Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

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

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.

Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”

INFEST — The Ugly Nazi History of Trump’s Chosen Verb About Immigrants

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.

aesops-characters

 

Rats As Cockney Rag And Bone Types

The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses
from Only Fools and Horses

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin

Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

mrsfrisbyandthe_ratsofnimhcover_huge_500x762

naked-mole-rat-gets-dressed_500x340

walter-the-story-of-a-rat_500x633

the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636

the-wind-in-the-willows_500x632

a-rats-tale-cover_500x670

hooway_500x500

i-was-a-rat-pullman_500x704

 

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

This middle grade novel features talking animals, especially mice, toys and doll’s houses. The Mouse and His Child is no Velveteen Rabbit, however.

The Mouse and His Child

As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and children’s literature enthusiasts:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.

— Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Continue reading “The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban”

Mice and Rats in Children’s Literature

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.

Animal Land

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.

Kenneth_Branagh__the_mice_DO_talk_in_live_action_Cinderella___you_just_have_to_slow_the_sound_down

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

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

 

Hameln1

Continue reading “Mice and Rats in Children’s Literature”