The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter

Squirrel Nutkin cover

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.

Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.

When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a continuum of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:

  1. The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
  2. Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
  3. And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals—the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.
Illustration from Johnson's Household Book of Nature (1880) squirrels
Illustration from Johnson’s Household Book of Nature (1880) squirrels


Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behaviour as opposed to promoting outlaw behaviour. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.

Crisis Magazine


Does Squirrel Nutkin work as a story for you? Graham Greene didn’t think so:

Graham Greene called The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin “an unsatisfactory book” in comparison with Beatrix Potter’s earlier tales, and it deserves this designation only insofar as it does not satisfy the accepted formula of the nursery morality tale. The ambiguity of Nutkin’s tale is very satisfying indeed. Whether or not Nutkin’s dismemberment is read as justice for nonconformity or a further celebration of nonconformity, what is more startling and poignant than the loss of Nutkin’s tail is the loss of Nutkin’s tales, as he proves unable to speak or sing after his chastisement.

Crisis Magazine

Scholars of children’s literature have identified a technique common to many children’s stories — the switch from the iterative to the singulative, in Maria Nikolajeva’s terms. This is where the author sets up the characters and the world via telling rather than showing:

This is a Tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin.

He had a brother called Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.

In the middle of the lake there is* an island covered with trees and nut bushes; and amongst those trees stands a hollow oak-tree, which is the house of an owl who is called Old Brown.

*Notice, also, how Beatrix Potter switched tense from past to present in her set-up. This is slightly unusual.

After the setting and main characters have been introduced, the story switches to the iterative (one-time event). This switch will be marked with something like, “One day, On this particular morning” or something like that:

One autumn when the nuts were ripe, and the leaves on the hazel bushes were golden and green—Nutkin and Twinkleberry and all the other little squirrels came out of the wood, and down to the edge of the lake.

Modern picture book authors more rarely make use of the switch from continuous to the iterative. Bear in mind, if you are making use of it, as many have done before you, the story will have an old-fashioned feel. Which may be fine, if that’s what you’re going for.


Squirrel Nutkin is basically Peter Rabbit in squirrel form. He’s a fun, merry prankster who doesn’t see danger until danger almost kills him.

Today, mischievous childlike characters in picture books are the norm. But in 1903, Pollyanna, Goody-Two-Shoes characters who behaved properly as models were the norm. Squirrel Nutkin is a political little book, as all children’s books are, whether they mean to be or not:

Nutkin’s is the attitude that does not obsequiously succumb to the formalities of, say, nineteenth century landowners, despite their pride, power, and sovereignty. Nutkin is the ancient Squirrel of Mischief: the irresistible agent of insubordination that launches itself against the rigid systems of the world in the struggle between the playful and the pragmatic. The contract between the silly songs that ring through the woods and the serious industry and poise that rises above them is reflective of a reality that every child knows—and so does every parent.

Crisis Magazine


The squirrels want to collect nuts on Owl Island. Following human-like procedures, they decide to ask permission rather than just take them. Although Nutkin is a cheeky scoundrel, he’s doing things by the book.


The owl, whose reticence makes him deliciously scary.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

I read the owl as a godlike figure. When the squirrels make offerings they’re basically performing a pagan ritual to their god, who they think is probably listening, but they have to keep the faith.


The squirrels make little rafts out of twigs and paddle over the water to Owl Island where they plan to ask permission from Owl, and then they’ll be allowed to gather as many nuts as they need.

They do this time and time again and the owl does not say no, so they conclude if they take offerings they’ll be allowed to continue.


Unfortunately, Squirrel Nutkin does not take the entire ritual seriously, revelling in riddles and fun rather than affording the scary owl the respect he probably deserves.

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!…

Then all at once there was a flutterment and a scufflement and a loud “Squeak!”

The other squirrels scuttered away into the bushes.


The ‘self’-revelation is a simple revelation—an unexpected, funny turn of events.

When they came back very cautiously, peeping round the tree—there was Old Brown sitting on his door-step, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened.

But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!

What makes this funny? All this time the owl has been presented as an ordinary animal owl, and he’s not even wearing a waistcoat. Also, being in an opponent’s pocket foredooms being inside their stomach.

The anagnorisis—of the page—is that Squirrel Nutkin may respect the owl in future and not be so bold.


Beatrix Potter knew that she couldn’t leave the story there:

This looks like the end of the story; but it isn’t.

If she had left the story at that, it would have felt cut short to the reader. Now we have the REAL big struggle scene, which is actually pretty gory to the sensibilities of the modern reader. Children of the first golden age kept chickens at home and saw them beheaded, they saw their cats give birth and their father drowning them… I feel confident in saying that children of 1903 had a closer connection to animal death than contemporary 2018 readers.


Old Brown carried Nutkin into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.


The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin ends in mythopoeic fashion, as a fictional, myth-like explanation for why squirrels behave as they do.

Cheeky squirrels who throw little sticks at you are definitely my own experience. Beatrix Potter has just explained why they’re so cheeky and timid at once:

And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you, and stamp his feet and scold, and shout—


What is Does Mythopoeic Mean?

Authors who make up their own mythologies for the sake of a setting are said to be writing ‘mythopoeic’ stories.

Mythopoeia is a narrative genre in modern storytelling where a fictional or artificial mythology is created by the writer. Tolkien coined the word, and Lords of the Rings remains a standout example. Harry Potter is another.


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The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Legend Or Fairytale?

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is at least part legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town, all of the children really did disappear in a short space of time.

The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.

Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper.


Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are a number of theories.


A creepy Pied Piper illlustration by, I think, a Russian illustrator?

The story of the Pied Piper suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.

According to Marina Warner, in No Go The BogeymanThe Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.


It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly  be due to chance.

A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.


However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this story, dating from the Middle Ages, young, charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.


It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier those days (around June 20-22).


Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania.  There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.


But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a terrible news story similar to that one.


In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.

Why and when did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.

The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher (in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? By people who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.

It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.

After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.


Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.

classic illustration of the pied piper street scene

Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Errol Le Cain
by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper illustration by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
If you recognise the illustrator, let me know.


Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.

I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories.  Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?

In this case, unusually, The Town is the main character, but the town is personified by the men who run it.


The town is overrun with rats. This surface level problem will highlight the inadequacies of the town.


The town wants to get rid of the rats. But then the desire shifts. For the second part of the story, the men who run the town don’t want the town to fall into poverty by paying what they promised.


Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.

The Opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.

The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.

Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?

To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:

  1. Proactive not reactive
  2. Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)

The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.

He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.

But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.


The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.


Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin play El Flautista de Hamelin

But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which may have influenced character design in Shrek.

Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.

the Pied Piper from Shrek
from the Shrek franchise

Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.

The Pied Piper old woman


Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.

Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?


In the Robert Browning poem, the Battle is dramatised with the scenes between the Pied Piper and the council.

The death big struggle takes place off the stage, when the piper drowns all of the children.


Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)

The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)

So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.


A town with no children. The town of Hamelin is no longer on the map — the children are a community’s future.



I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?

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Strat and Chatto by Jan Mark and David Hughes

Strat and Chatto is a picture book created by Jan Mark and David Hughes. Jan Mark was a British children’s book author who died about 10 years ago in 2006. She wrote for the picture book and chapter book age range. Her subject matter was mostly ordinary kids in ordinary settings. She also wrote plays and collections of short stories.


David Hughes describes himself as “a graphic designer who happens to illustrate” which sounds suspiciously to me like he’s actively avoiding the condescension experienced by creators of children’s books. The truth is, though, that he hasn’t really illustrated many picture books compared to all the other work he has done. He also writes children’s books.

His background/forte in graphic design shines through on these pages, which are all double page spreads, with the action flowing beautifully across the page. (I haven’t scanned any of the double page spreads — the hard copy is necessary to enjoy those.)

White space is preserved, and busyness minimised, with the technique of filling some objects with colour and leaving others as outlines.

Another standout feature of these illustrations are the disgustingness of the creatures. Hughes achieves this by creating skeletal, long-fingered hands, spiny tails and wavy antennae.


Strat and Chatto is a story set in London, with a strong Cockney influence coming through in the rat. This rat is an animal version of the Rag and Bone man of yesteryear — a white, working class guy who gambles, drinks and plays darts at the pub when he’s not at work.

Like any ancient city, London is in a state of constant change — out with the old, in with the new. This cycle is emulated at the micro level in this story about the rotation of animals inclined to infest urban dwellings: cockroaches, rats, silverfish and also bats.




Our viewpoint character is the put-upon cat. The cat is presented as somewhat cuter than the other characters, though lacking in drive. This is his downfall.



All Chatto wants is this one rat out of his house.


The original (off-stage) opponent may be the rat throwing lentils onto his head, but this story begins with a far stronger opponent coming along.

See here for why rats are the baddies and mice are the goodies of children’s literature.

Readers do love tricksters, and the rat is an example of that archetype.


We don’t see the rat’s plan for a while, though we’re encouraged to guess.

This part of the story is very similar to Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, in that a small dwelling becomes unbearably overcrowded with creatures, upsetting the original inhabitant. Donaldson’s story is created more like a modern fable with a message about not complaining about the size of your house, but this is a purely comic tale in which the reader is invited to guess at what the wily rat is up to.

I suspect the illustrator is not a huge fan of Nana Mouskouri.
Possibly the only instance of camel toe I have seen in a children’s book.


The climax is a busy scene where all the invaders come together.

Then Strat climbed in at the cat flap and yelled, “EVERYBODY OUT!”

And out of the cat flap came the bats and the cockroaches and the silverfish.


We realise the rat’s plan. We’ve been wondering all along why he’s been moving all his friends and acquaintances into the cat’s house — it’s because he wants to move in himself, since his own house is about to be demolished.


We realise now that this is a very clever circular story. The original rat probably weasled his way into the cat’s apartment by similar means.

Notice the tails here, intertwined, but in a stranglehold.

The long, bulbous fingers which have been emphasised throughout the book are framed for attention here. Long fingers indicate a long reach, and we find them creepy. I’m sure that’s why depictions of grey aliens feature similar hands.

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Doctor De Soto by William Steig (1982)

Doctor De Soto is an example of a picture book 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

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.


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.



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 picture books 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 picture books, 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 miniatures, in which tiny animals have rigged workarounds to exist in a world much too big for their bodies.




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


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


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.


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.


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


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’.


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.



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.

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Rats In Children’s Literature

close up of a rat

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.


Rats are associated with different emotions, depending on the culture. Ancient Japan had a good relationship with rats, though I have no idea why — didn’t rats get into everyone’s food stocks… a life or death matter back then? It may be precisely the power of rats that affords them respect, and respect can be associated with good fortune, I guess.


The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney English, 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

Charlotte’s Web was probably a heavy influence on the rat as rag and bone man today, via the character of Templeton.

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.



Because the rat as baddie is so well established, an author can subvert audience expectations by creating a nice, kind, loving rat.

Andrew McDonald does this in Real Pigeons Splash Back, illustrated by Ben Wood. The pigeon crime fighters are scared of rats. This is established early as they prepare to head into the sewers. Eventually they come face to face with the dreaded rats… first a female rat who pulls them out of the water and dries them off nicely with towels.

Mo Willems also subverts the stereotype of a rat by creating a lovable Naked Mole Rat — check out photos and the animal is about the least cute mammal I can think of.

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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.


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

“What are we, Papa?” the toy mouse child asked his father.
“I don’t know,” the father answered. “We must wait and see.”
So begins the story of a tin father and son who dance under a Christmas tree until they break the ancient clock-work rules and are themselves broken. Thrown away, then rescued from a trash can and repaired by a tramp, they set out on a perilous odyssey to follow the child’s dream of a family and a place of their own. What happens to the mouse and his child in their search for the magnificent doll house, the plush elephant, and the tin seal they had known in the toyshop is a tale to remember and return to.

And made into a film back in 1977.

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.

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


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).


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

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Mice in Children’s Literature

Micky Mouse Barnyard Olympics

This post is specifically about mice, because rats are treated quite differently in children’s literature.


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
Aileen Tyrrell Richardson (1916-2005), Canadian illustrator. Across the Country, 1959 mouse
Aileen Tyrrell Richardson (1916-2005), Canadian illustrator. Across the Country, 1959 mouse


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.


In Charles Perrault’s version of “Cinderella“, 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.



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


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


As you can see, it wasn’t always ‘hickory dickory’ — here we’ve got ‘hickety dickety’.



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.

The Mice And Their Pic-nic

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.

Five Little Mice In A Mousetrap

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield (1927)

The Midnight Folk

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


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
I can’t even guess at the reasons behind having the work of Beatrix Potter reillustrated for a modern audience. Yet it has been done.

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


Mickey Mouse

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.


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.

Animal Land
Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts Ernest Aris
Ernest Aris


Ben and Me Robert Lawson

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



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



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.

Who Sank The Boat animals

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.

by Kathrin Schaerer
by Kathrin Schaerer

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.

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The Mousewife cover

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


O For A Mouseless House

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

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.

Margaret Blount


Won the Newbery Award in 1960. Thre's nothing unlikely in the scavenging animals living below ground and existing on scraps humans throw away. Fantasy only lies in their friendship.
Won the Newbery Award in 1960. Thre’s nothing unlikely in the scavenging animals living below ground and existing on scraps humans throw away. Fantasy only lies in their friendship.

A cat, a mouse, and a cricket. All of them living in a nook at a newspaper stand in Times Square.



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.

Runaway Ralph



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.


Progressive Vintage Children’s Book Starring a Female Architect

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

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.


Mouse books by Davis


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.

Mouse books by Richard Peck




The Witches


Walter the Lazy Mouse

Laziness isn’t part of the generally understood mouse personality, so this book is a deliberate subversion.


Marathon Mouse Cover

Athletic mice feel more usual than lazy ones.



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.

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Nutcracker and Mouse King




Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

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

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 Tor Seidler

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


In Coraline 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.

Shh Little Mouse Pamela Allen
Will the little grey mouse find something to eat, or will he wake the sleeping cat?
Ernest Aris (1882-1963). Mice make nests in all sorts of places. This is reflected in children’s books. Alfred Ernest Walter George Aris, also known by the pen names Robin A Hood and Dan Crow, was born in London in 1882. He was an author and illustrator of children’s books. He worked on more than 170 publications. Ernest Aris also designed cigarette cards, postcards, toys and games.

With the adventure of Avi’s Poppy series and the heart of A Wolf Called Wander, this charming and exciting middle grade adventure follows one mouse’s journey to save his baby brother from a sinister evil.

There are rules every mouse must follow if they’re to survive in the forest.

Tobin knows these guidelines by heart. After all, with one younger sibling, another on the way, and a best friend with a penchant for trouble-making, he needs to be prepared for anything.

But one stormy night, Tobin’s safe burrow is invaded by monstrous arachnids, and his baby brother stolen away. To save him, Tobin will have to do something he’s never done before: break the rules.

Drawing inspiration from the author’s work as a natural science documentarian, Journey Beyond the Burrow is as alive as the forest floor, where nature is unpredictable, occasionally frightening, and inspirational all the same.


Le Petit Pere Mulot

Le Petit Pere Mulot
Guri and Gura
Mouse's Vest by Nakae Yoshio 2004

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