The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His Child

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

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
Hoban, Lillian, The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban, 1967

In some ways it can be compared to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web continues to be more widely known.

The story shares commonalities with E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web by contrasting with a large part of children’s literature in the sense of occasional use of advanced vocabulary, a willingness to include adult themes, and talking animals.

Wikipedia

Why is The Mouse and His Child not more widely read today? Townsend explains that The Mouse And His Child is clearly North American but has, for some reason, been far more popular in Britain, where it is regarded a classic.  Some people speculate it’s due to ‘hygiene’ — that picking toys out of the dump isn’t clean.

That said, the book has been reprinted and re-illustrated

The Mouse And His Child faber cover

And made into a film back in 1977

220px-Mouse_and_his_child1977

And the Japanese are well-known for a love of cleanliness, and it’s not unknown there:

Japanese The Mouse And His Child

The original edition was illustrated by Russell Hoban’s wife, Lillian. There is a distinctly Disney feel about it. Lillian Hoban is perhaps best known for her I-Can-Read illustrations for the Arthur series.

The Mouse And His Child Lilian Hoban

Arthur Levine commissioned illustrator David Small to do the artwork for their updated edition in 2001. These illustrations remind me more of Sir Quentin Blake, but with close attention to shade and tone which adds a slightly noir feel.

David Small The Mouse and His Child

What is the story about?

The mice are searching for the things that people want: happiness, a family, a home, self-winding freedom, from their bright morning in the toy shop at Christmas to their ending on a birdhouse platform by a railway line, near the town dump. There is a glimpse of shining perfection as the toys — the mice, elephant, seal and doll’s house that come so largely to the story — wait on the shop counter to be sold. The mice dance in a circle when wound.

To be bought is to be born. For four years the mouse father and son dance under the Christmas tree, always put away in their box until, pounced on and broken by a cat, they are thrown away. Repaired by a tramp who can only make them walk straight, they follow an endless road, tramps themselves, finding their way into a place like Cannery Row only far more sinister — the town dump ruled by the exploiting bandit Manny Rat, the underworld king who wears a greasy dressing-gown and lives in an old TV set.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Influences And Intended Audience

Hans Andersen with the clockwork nightingale and lead soldier, Kingsley with the fate of the lost doll, Collodi with the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the human sadness of toys, which is something that adults see, and one wonders if children really enjoy The Mouse and His Child. As an adult it is impossible to read it unmoved.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Multiple Layers

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967), about the quest of a pair of linked toys to find a home and be self-winding, is a multi-layered book, accessible at more than one level. It can be read by children quite simply as a story of the adventures of clockwork toys, and by adults as a haunting human progress. The pathos of a toy’s life — the decline from freshness, beauty and efficiency toward the rubbish dump, the rusting of bright metal, the rotting of firm plush — is the pathos of human life transposed. The mouse and his child are loving people, totally interdependent. There are clear allegorical meanings — any child can understand the longing to be self-winding — and strong, often funny, sometimes savage satire, though some of this may be beyond the grasp of children. Manny Rat, who rules the rubbish dump and deals with recalcitrant toys by consigning their innards to the spare parts can, is a splendid villain.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Motifs, Symbols, Satire

Likeness to the human world is both satiric and symbolic. The mice are sent to rob a bank by the rat; the chipmunk behind the counter pushes ‘the alarm twig’ and a badger guard eats the rat. The mice get involved in a territorial war between shrew armies with big struggle cries of ‘ours’ and ‘onwards’; weasels casually eat the shrews; owls catch the weasels. A recurrent motif is an old empty dogfood tin with a picture of a dog in a chef’s cap carrying on a tray another dog in a chef’s cap. The mouse father’s heart is his clockwork centre. He has patience, courage, sad endurance. The child, with less clockwork, has room for dreams of family and home — ‘I want the elephant to be my mama and the seal to be my sister and I want to live in the beautiful house.’ In their hopeless quest, the mice somnambulate through impossible tasks, like Tess in the potato field. They pace the Crows’ stage in an incomprehensible play…they are harnessed by the muskrat to a saw device for felling a tree, which takes all the winter, they fall to the bottom of a pond. Their physical disintegration is a persistent theme. When they do at last find the doll’s house its fate has been that of many real ones. It has been ravaged by fire and ‘become in its romantic ruined state a trysting place for young rat lovers, then a social and athletic club.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Significance of ‘Wind-up’ In Wind-up Toys

Maria Nikolajeva writes, ‘The very idea of a windup toy is repetition, predestination, things going on forever. Another aspect is absence of change and free will.’ If the mice were to dance Christmas after Christmas, however, there would be no story. So although the adults have an idea of what children might enjoy, the children (or child characters) are wrong. When the mouse child breaks the rules, this is a step away from circularity (and from the iterative language). Everything that happens after the mouse child is expelled from paradise is tragic but necessary. The message seems to be that linearity is preferable to circularity:

“There is no going back,” said the father…we cannot dance in circles anymore.

The Mouse and His Child

The Doll’s-house Symbolism

The doll’s house is inhabited by wonderful papier-mâché models talking in scraps of newsprint, and is an enviable mansion with every detail exact, one of those American country houses whose adjectival accompaniment is always ‘decaying’ and ‘Southern’ as if they have to end up in Tennessee Williams land. And indeed, this one decays and suffers as doll’s houses, and some real ones, often do.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Manny Rat

Manny Rat is your archetypal rag-and-bone man, which rats often are in children’s books with personified animals:

The rat is hideously real, always foraging, exploiting everything it meets, using old clockwork toys to fetch and carry, mending them just enough to keep them going like abused and broken-down horses, running sordid sideshows that offer and give nothing, and taking his profit from their wretched owners, miserable beetles and crickets.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Jungian critics have fun with this novel. There is an obvious erotic subtext, ‘especially in the rivalry between the mouse father and Manny rat, and the elephant’s open aversion for Manny, who has, we might say, raped her.’

Maria Nikolajeva uses this book as an example of a book which breaks away from the idyll established in the beginning. Take note of what Nikolajeva refers to as ‘iterative’ time:

The Mouse and His Child is most often referred to as toy fantasy. However, I would like to show that […] it depicts an attempted, successful or not, to break away from idyll, which is often expressed by the change in temporal pattern of the novel from circular to linear. The Mouse and His Child starts with a perfect image of childhood, a doll house, a self-sufficient world existing wholly in the cyclical time:

…the dolls never set foot outside it. They had no need to; everything they could possibly want was there … Interminable-weekend-guest dolls lay in all the guest room beds, sporting dolls played billiards in the billiard room, and a scholar doll in the library never ceased perusal of the book he held … In the dining room, beneath a glittering chandelier, a party of lady and gentleman dolls sat perpetually around a table…

It was the elephant’s constant delight to watch that tea party through the window…

The Frog

The chief supporting characters in this strange nightmare are ‘Frog’, a figure of destiny who inhabits an old glove and makes his way with herbal remedies and fortune telling, a philosophic muskrat, a terrapin who is a thinker, scholar and playwright, two crows who run an experimental theatre company, a kingfisher and a bittern, both helpful characters represented as do-it-yourself expert and a solitary bachelor fond of fishing.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Food

Other interesting things about this book are that it’s very much about eating and being eaten up, even though the toys themselves can’t and don’t need to eat (nor do they wish to become human, unlike in The Velveteen Rabbit, for instance).

Death

The Velveteen Rabbit makes a good counterpoint here:

Because these characters are toys, death is treated differently, too.They cannot die, which means the story takes place over many more years than your typical children’s story. ‘…all these violent deaths do not affect the toys, just as “adult” deaths most often do not affect children. […] The author introduces a special kind of death for the toys, which they go through, as ritual prescribes, three times. Since death, for toys, unlike all other deaths in the story, is reversible, they are reborn like the returning gods.‘ Notice that after each destruction and resurrection the mice reemerge with new qualities.

[…]

The happy ending does not dispel the lingering sadness of the clockwork pair, the father doomed to travel forward through the world and the son (who is joined to him) backwards. Helpless when they are not wound up, unable to stop when they are, they are fated like all mechanical things to breakage, rust and disintegration as humans are to death.

[…]

The path of every toy is always downwards. Though they share with humans apparent death (by smashing) and strange resurrections (by mending), they do not, like humans, have a high noon. The Velveteen Rabbit (Marjery Williams, 1912) has once again the them of the toy made real and immortal by love. The Rabbit is quite new. Bright and plushy he comes to the Boy at the top of a Christmas stocking, at the peak of his physical perfection, and ‘for at least two hours the Boy loved him.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Mouse and His Child As An Influential Mouse Book

Margaret Blount compares the mouse of this book to others that have followed since:

Mice who do stand out for their individuality and sheer strength of character sometimes appear in other settings; The Mouse and His Child of the unforgettable endurance are really toys and not mice at all; the great Reepicheap is a Talking Beast, one of many; Stuart Little is notable for being a social misfit and Tucker, of The Cricket In Times Square, outstanding for his untidy antique collection and his hidden riches.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Difference Between Novels and Short Stories

Anne Anderson (Scottish,1874-1952) My Short Story Book

More than any other narrative structure, the short story veers toward what Joseph Frank calls “spatial form” — a set of narrative techniques and processes of aesthetic perception that work to impede linearity. For most novels scale is weighted on the side of everyday reality, measured by means of accumulation of matter-of-fact details within temporal frames. But short stories are kind of the opposite: Elements of the mythic and dreamlike are foregrounded. Instead of moving through time in such a way that propels readers on, readers of short stories are catapaulted from beginning to end and back again. Short stories are designed to be re-read.

Mary Rohrberger, The Art of Brevity

Header: Anne Anderson (Scottish,1874-1952) My Short Story Book

The Problem Novel: A constructed, artificial society?

“The Problem Novel” is a dismissive term for a realistic young adult story which focuses solely on the worst aspects of life: murder, eating disorder, discrimination, imprisonment, rape, drug abuse and similar.

The following draws heavily from Lecture 03 of Fiction For Young Adults, delivered by Prof David Beagley at La Trobe University. Lectures are available on iTunes U.

A Brief History Of The Problem Novel

Little Women is sometimes regarded as the first teen novel. A group of girls try to live their lives as normal. But it’s the middle of the American civil war. Their father is away and they are desperate for his return.

In this vain we have light mysteries such as those by Enid Blyton, The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew and so on. Those stories are cosy. The children return to their normal lives after they have neatly solved the mystery at hand.

The problem novel developed after this. Instead of living a normal, everyday life, the unusual, the danger, the disruption IS the normal situation. Ironically (given that these are called ‘problem novels’, rather than solving the problem of poverty or whatever the dramatic element is, the characters must simply learn to cope with their situation and survive through it. The protagonist is the victim. In other stories for children, the protagonist tends to help the victim.

The mid 1960s marked a guide change in the world as well as in children’s literature. The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to problem novels, in which the world flowed in to fiction. These are about death, loss and trauma, which test a child’s ability to cope. They focus on rites of passage.

The (Modern) Problem Novel can probably be traced to something like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel in 1969, which is about teenage pregnancy. (The title comes from the health counsellor who tells the girls that to derail a boy from sex is to encourage him to eat a hamburger instead.) The subgenre of problem novels about pregnancy are called ‘Preggers Novels’. We also have A Girl Like Me by Jeannette Eyerly, published 1966, or Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by AnnHead, published 1967. The formula for a preggers novel:

  • Worry. Am I pregnant? Oh no, I might be pregnant!
  • Discovery. Oh my god. I’m actually pregnant.
  • Revelation. Young woman tells her boyfriend/parents.
  • What do I do now? There are three alternatives: abortion, keep the baby, adoption.

The authors of these 1960s preggers novels approved the last option. It’s interesting, therefore, that a liberal minded writer like Diablo Cody followed the 1960s preggers novel script when she wrote Juno, which screened in 2007. That said, Juno is far more progressive in its attitudes. That’s because the Preggers Novel continued to evolve throughout the 1990s. The books themselves were better written and eventually we even started to see some preggers novels written from the point of view of the young fathers, e.g. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, 2003.

The 1976 book Open The Doors was the first novel about sex which was not aimed at an adult audience. This book was difficult to get hold of (either because librarians didn’t want it on the shelves or because it was always on loan).

I Came Back To Show You I Could Fly (1990) deals with another unmarried teenage pregnancy but in this case the girl is a drug addict as well.

At the moment in YA fiction some storylines are reminiscent of the Problem Novel, but without quite the same intensity. There are currently many books which deal with:

  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • school gun massacres, prompted by the Columbine High School shooting
  • alienation in general
  • overturning bullies

Sleeping Dogs by Sonja Harnett, Tiff and the Trout… in all of these books the key character is the victim.

This is what Sheila Egoff was referring to in 1980 when she wrote her article The Problem Novel.

Criticism Of The Problem Novel

Egoff is not a fan of this style of story. In her essay she has a go at the very formulaic way these novels have become a construction industry, in a way. She identified several key elements in this type of YA book. She argues that:

  • These stories are not well written, pumped out because they are sensational.
  • Most feature a shocking ‘rite of passage’ which changes the character from a carefree child to a careworn adult. There is some specific thing which causes a change.
  • Therefore, these books focus on externals, and how things look to others – oh dear, I’ve been thrown out of society. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders: ‘’Oh dear, there’s been a stabbing! I must run away!”
  • The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties, focusing on the alienation from the adult world, to which he or she is usually very hostile. The narrative is almost always in the first person, and its confessional tone is rigorously self-centred.
  • This focuses on a childlike concern about ‘me’. These are all very egocentric books.
  • The biggest problem in all of these novels are adults, who rarely if ever offer a loving, constructive solution.
  • These books have to almost outdo each other by becoming more and more sensational.
  • Writing style: Trite, stereotypical, patronising, presuming the readership cannot understand the real problems, wanting only the sensational aspects of the real problem.

To be clear, Egoff does not have a problem with such problems being dealt with. There are two quite separate issues we need to consider when evaluating a YA novel with grim subject matter:

  1. Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
  2. Are the books actually well-written?

Other authors and critics have weighed in on The Problem Novel. Below are some quotes:

There is a plethora of very fine children’s books that mainly portray the writers’ disappointments, phobias and depressions, tales of punishment, injustice and loneliness. But one thing he always owes his readers is a happy ending, some kind of happy ending. Or a way left open for the child to spin the tale further.

– Tove Jansson

I remember thinking how refreshing it would be to read a book about young people who enjoyed life, did well at school, had happy relations with their parents, and neither became nor made anybody pregnant. But fictionally, I suppose, that would be a dull life.

– John Rowe Townsend

I agree that children need to be — and usually want very much to be — taught right from wrong. But I believe that realistic fiction for children is one of the very hardest media in which to do it … You get ‘problem books’. The problem of drugs, of divorce, of race prejudice … and so on — as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved, that has an answer, like a problem in fifth grad arithmetic. If you want the answer, you just look at the back of the book. That is escapism, that posing evil as a ‘problem’…

But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem … To give the child a picture of … gas chambers … or famines or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it’ — that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

– Ursula Le Guin

Pretending that there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice — is a prescription for disaster for the young. Submitting to censorship is to enter [a] a seductive world … where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.

– Lois Lowry, when The Giver caused controversy

Although there is still much hand-writing about Problem Novels, the trend is largely over. You know what put an end to it? They got more and more sensational until Daniel Pinkwater couldn’t resist writing a parody called Young Adult Novel in 1982. In fact, the era of The Problem Novel only lasted about a decade, mostly in the 1970s. The main body of YA literature continued to grow during and after this time in scope, material and diversity of topic.

Examples Of Problem Novels

Martin Waddell (Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?) also wrote The Beat Of The Drum, set in Belfast at the height of the troubles. The protagonist is faced with the problem of whether he should become the leader of the annual parade after someone is injured. Will I, or won’t I? Will I take sides in blame? Will I just leave? This is quite a confronting book, first written under the name of Katherine Sefton. There is some suggestion that he needed to do that because he’s a Northern Irishman himself, and might have been seen to be taking sides.

Once, Then and Now – three stories following a boy Felix through the second world war and the Holocaust.

Looking for X by Deborah Ellis is largely set in a single night where a girl is desperately trying to find an old homeless woman who can help her family, because her younger siblings are autistic. The family is trying to stay together.

Pervana is set in Afghanistan. Pervana is the name of a girl, whose father goes missing. This means her mother can’t leave the house, so Pervana has to dress as a boy. There are two sequels.

The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis

Tiff and the Trout is an interesting study of family dynamics dealing with divorce. Tiff has to decide between her mother and her father. The father is a quiet teacher, the mother is an active social figure who wants The Gold Coast. Dad wants the mountains. Set in a small town a bit like Mount Beauty of Victoria. The mountains and the sea symbolise the two extremes in the family.

Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fenchem won the younger reader’s book of the year award, unusual because it deals with an adult theme of schizophrenia.

Dear Miffy some years ago shocked John Marsden’s readership when it first came out. This time, unlike previous ones, it’s not a teenage girl dealing with problems but a boy, and has sex, drugs, strong language.

 

Academic Reading

Sheila Egoff’s set of books called Only Connect which she edited over several decades. Rather than just being an updating of the previous editions each one is really a completely new text (which should probably have different names). See The Problem Novel. This is quite hard to get now.

Pam Harvey, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 2010, Bibliotherapy used by welfare teams in secondary colleges is a very different way of looking at the role these problem novels play for the readers. Who constructs the meaning? The author, fixed in the text, or is it totally the interpretation of the reader?

Hawks looks at Sonja Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo, looking at the environment and the writing style.

Maureen Nighman from South Australia looks at the selection of texts by adult mediators (parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers) from ACCESS Realism in young people’s reading: the line between selection and censorship. At what point can kids choose for themselves?

Pattee, A. S. (2004). Disturbing the peace: The function of young adult literature and the case of Catherine Atkins’ When Jeff comes home Children’s Literature in Education, 35 , 241–255. Pattee looks at a novel which came out about 1999 called When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins, a very confronting story. Pattee highlights the criteria by which so many of these adult mediators make these choices, about what is or is not appropriate for child readers.

What’s Going On inside of Me? Emergent Female Sexuality and Identity Formation in Young Adult Literature by Evelyn Baldwin talks about sexual assault.

 

Realism Is Requisite

(See the Realism lecture from Genres in Children’s Literature.)

The characters in a so-called Problem Novel are people you could meet in real life, set in a place you might visit (even if the place isn’t actually real). There are no magic or supernatural elements. These settings will quite often directly influence the plot. The plot is often driven by the situation of those characters – how the character approaches, faces and makes choices. The key characters develop as a result of those choices.

Even stories set in other worlds, of fantasy, must begin with the probable, then later moves into something disrupting that. Even a movie like Shrek starts with the mundane, everyday world before moving into fantasy/adventure.

 

What is the point of The Problem Novel?

YA Violence and Abuse Problems – a Goodreads List

Best Teen Books About Real Problems – a Goodreads List

Sheila Egoff would argue that most Problem Novels are simply trying to achieve sensationalism as a marketing tool.

Patty’s article about When Jeff Comes Home (Disturbing the peace…) makes a similar argument to that of Egoff. It’s not only a stereotype of the story but of the YA as well. A template defines the reader as this standard teenager.

When Jeff Comes Home is told in the first person (surprise, surprise!) about a 16-year-old boy who has been held prisoner after being kidnapped at a bus station by a sexual sadist, kept as a sex toy for three years. This is not an uncommon story – there have been several cases of it, particularly in Europe over the past few years. The American Library Association immediately put it on a best book list, which raised a lot of hackles.

Harvey argues that these stories give young readers coming from an unfamiliar environment strategies to understand and deal with all these nasty things.

Patti quotes Michael Cart – The Problem Novel is an exercise in iconoclasm, taboo busting, shibboleth shattering. (Iconoclasm refers to the tackling of the boundaries. A shibboleth is a password at the boundary.) The problem is, in order to be realist, there is the implication that these taboo topics are normal – that it is normal to be kidnapped, to become pregnant while very young, to be abused.

Does Problem Literature create the stereotype, or does it reflect the reality? As each book pushes a boundary, the next ones have to go further. Where are the boundaries and how do we define them?

 

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is used by welfare teams in secondary colleges in Australia. ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ is from C.S. Lewis. The aim of bibliotherapy is to elicit change in the attitude or behaviour of the reader. The prescribed book is deliberately aiming to change the reader in a cognitive way, to the reader’s benefit. There are no bones made about its intention. The aim is for the reader to have a physical/emotional reaction to something fictional. When it becomes too confronting simply shut the book, returning to it when you’re ready. Literature is thought to serve a purpose – it implies that there is somebody who knows better than you do and that they have the right and the tools to make that change that needs to be made. So what is the difference between bibliotherapy and propaganda?

This is a contentious issue, because it rests upon a premise that this time of life is a particularly dangerous and destructive period.