I used to think that employing a computer to handle all your illustrating needs in a picture book was a risky proposition. Then we entered into 2007 and suddenly there were books like Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug and the equally bizarre The Wizard using computers in radically different ways. Finally I got a glimpse of Mrs. Marlowe’s Mice, and now I think that it is safe to say that I’ve been won over to this style of artistic expression. In a sense, this particular book is a companion to Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse, put out by the same author and illustrator. Of the two, however, I may have to admit that I prefer this latest title. For cat lovers (and mice lovers alike) there’s little to compare to the sweet madness that is the world of Frank and Devin Asch.
To the casual observer Mrs. Marlowe is just your average librarian widow. But to those who know her, and know her well, she’s a very dangerous person: a mouse-keeper. Mouse-keeping is strictly forbidden, but within her home Mrs. Marlowe oversees a large number of happy well-fed rodentia. Of course, there’s always the suspicion in the back of the minds of the mice that perhaps Mrs. Marlowe is just fattening them up for the kill, but the real test comes the day when her home is inspected by two policecats from Catland Security. Though she’s adept at keeping the authorities at bay, when little Billy falls from his hiding space what happens next nobody expects.
When I was a kid one of my favorite sequences in the Monty Python film And Now For Something Completely Different was the animated section that showed a huge rampaging cat attacking a town. It was basically a photograph of a real cat animated in bizarre ways and somehow, that imagine kept popping into my head as I read this book. I mean, the way that the cats are portrayed in the Asch titles is doggone weird, you have to admit. It’s not many steps from the cats here to William Wegman’s human-handed dogs. I had a bit of a time getting over Mrs. Marlowe’s furry palms, but you can’t imagine how much I appreciated that Mr. Asch the younger didn’t slap a head of hair on her or something. He did give her eyelashes (the international unspoken symbol indicating that an animal is a girl) but aside from that she looks much like a very real kitty cat. I was fond of just how attractive Mrs. Marlowe was too. She practically sashays across the room when distracting the police officers away from her illegal mousie brood. Her clothing is relatively conservative (we are talking about a librarian here) but she has just the loveliest way of reclining casually against a chair. It’s amazing the menfolk can look anywhere else.
The art in this book is really quite clever too. On the street outside Mrs. Marlowe’s home everything is brown and colorless. Even her normally deep green eyes take on a sepia hue before entering into her home. The little details are fun to find as well. Kids with sharp eyes will spot the cat across the street that ends up reporting Mrs. Marlowe and her hideaways. It’s also fun to locate where the various mice are peeking out as the two policecats go through the young widow’s home.
I love how you never really know whose side Mrs. Marlowe is on until the end of the book. With the multiple shots of the cat wielding a very sharp knife above a block of cheese, to say nothing of the cover, the author and illustrator work to constantly keep you guessing about Mrs. Marlowe’s intentions towards her “guests”. There’s a very palpable sense of Mrs. Marlowe living within a police state too. The endpapers of this book show the shadows of two cats over a city map. Below them, little flags portraying the heads of deceased mice dot the landscape, indicating where other mouse-keepers have been caught. Devin Asch is in danger of showing his hand a little too broadly when you spot the number on the Lieutenant’s badge from Catland Security, but I suspect that this is a detail that most people usually miss. By and large there isn’t a single identifiable moment in history tied into this story of a brave woman hiding an oppressed group from an unjust government.
It’s a charming little piece and one that I’m sure isn’t going to catch the public’s eye as quickly as it deserves to. Yet when it comes to fun stories presented in wholly original ways, Frank and Devin Asch have the competition beat. A great book that contains more than initially meets the eye.
On shelves now.