The mouse, as hero, is an easy children’s book hero. With its diet so nearly identical to that of humans, its cute and cuddly face (sorry rats), and the sense that the great big wide world is dead set against them, we relate. We are, admittedly less than delighted when they run across our floors in front of us, but on the page we’re with them from page one onward. And I may be in the minority here, but I think they’re even cuter when they look as realistic as possible. It’s hard to improve on nature, after all. Now imagine a tiny mouse, realistic from tip to tail, outfitted in teeny tiny goggles and you’ve got yourself a bona fide hit on your hands. Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse has remarkably little to do with Charles Lindbergh and everything to do with airborne Rodentia. Shockingly beautiful without jading the reader in the process, German author/illustrator Torben Kuhlmann goes in for something 100% original and comes out a star. If this little critter isn’t on your radar yet then you’re looking in the wrong direction.
There was a time when the mice of Germany flourished. The human world was perfect to their needs. Then one day, an inquisitive little mouse (who liked reading the occasional human book on occasion) found that all his fellow rodents had disappeared. Mousetraps had increased tenfold, so he reasoned that perhaps his fellow mice had traveled across the sea to America. Determined to find them he found instead that at the docks there were cats absolutely everywhere. A quick escape revealed the presence of bats to him. Or, as he liked to think of them, mice with wings. Inspired by their appearance the mouse set about discovering the secrets of flight itself. Early experiments met with failure but he was determined to hit on the right solution. It was only when he got close to success that he attracted the attention of the owl population. Now to escape to the sky the mouse must outwit a pack of various animal foes, as well as the nature of gravity itself.
Comparisons to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival are understandable considering the subject matter, the time period (fedora hats, etc.) and the fact that the entire enterprise appears to have been steeped in sepia. That said, Lindbergh doesn’t quite become the universal metaphor one would hope for. I was showing it to a friend of mine and as she paged through it, cooing continually over the art, she mentioned that if it is hindered by anything it is the words. “This could have been a stronger piece without any words at all.” I don’t absolutely agree, but I certainly think that with some additional art and tweaks she’d be correct. This is not to say that the translation isn’t perfectly good. It’s just hard not to compare it to the images. Kuhlmann’s art is so incredibly strong that one feels a slight letdown every time the text returns. Take away the words as it currently stands and some of the story doesn’t quite make sense. Add the words and it holds together, but it’s no longer quite as universal. For example, Kuhlmann feels it necessary to have the mouse leave Germany because all the other mice have disappeared thanks to the proliferation of mousetraps and he thinks they’ve emigrated (any adult reading this is probably pretty sure they know the true fate of his brethren). The Arrival was clever enough to keep the reasons why people leave their home countries vast and varied. Had Lindbergh been wordless, the image of the mouse surrounded by mousetraps (a striking image if ever there was one) would have been reason enough.
In terms of the art itself, part of what makes this so interesting is how Kuhlmann refuses point blank to fully physically anthropomorphize his mouse. Sure, it may read about Leonardo da Vinci and construct elaborate machines that mimic the very history of flight itself, but essentially what we’re dealing here is a very realistic looking rodent without so much as a name of his own. In terms of the art, think Beatrix Potter meets Shaun Tan. Best of all, the book stays fairly true to its original roots. Newspaper articles seen about the mouse have wisely not been translated from the original German. Kuhlmann also excels at the inherent drama in the turn of a page. My favorite comes halfway through the book when the mouse has inadvertently appeared in the newspaper. The text reads, “Everyone wondered what the little daredevil would do next. All eyes were now on the lookout for the winged rodent. Eyes of all kinds …” Turn the page and you are struck head on by this flock of amber-eyed horned owls all facing a newspaper, reading the copy. Even for someone who has never feared an owl’s gaze, the effect is chilling. Look too at that early image of the mouse surrounded by mousetraps, then hold it up side-by-side with the image of the mouse surrounded by fellow mice once he lands in America. What a perfect symmetry.
Expect to encounter a few folks wondering whom precisely the book is for. Coming in at a striking 96 pages, it certainly reads longer than your average picture book (average length = 32 pages). Yet in terms of the story there’s nothing particularly advanced about the book. With the sole exception of a newspaper photography displaying a mouse dead in a trap, the closest our hero comes to true horror is a series of close shaves with cats and owls respectively. This is, therefore, remarkable bedtime reading fare. It might actually be the perfect length for a single bedtime story for kids ages four and up. The cover is admittedly a tad misleading, showing the mouse sitting on the nose of the Spirit of St. Louis. After all, according to the book it is Lindbergh who is inspired by the mouse, not the other way around. Still, I can’t help but think that the book would tie in beautifully with curricular units on flight.
The sheer beauty of this book is likely to overwhelm the senses. Its greatest asset is its ability to enthrall on contact. That said, it’s actually a very simple very story. Mouse wants to fly. Mouse learns to fly. Mouse flies. It never takes full advantage of the potential metaphor just within reach, but that’s hardly a crime. Breathtaking and simple all at once, it’s neither fish nor fowl: It’s flying mouse. Not much like anything you’ve ever encountered at all. Certainly it was worth its trip across the ocean to reach us.
On shelves May 1st.
Source: Early galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Arrival by Shaun Tan
- Learning to Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser
- Anything Is Possible by Giulia Belloni
I don’t usually do this, but the pictures in this book insist upon it. Here are some additional images from the story that I wasn’t able to weave into my review:
Videos: I can think of no better way to give you a sense of the art than to show you this book trailer. It doesn’t contain either of my two favorite images (the cat at the docks and the first view you have of the owls reading a newspaper) but it still does a good job of conveying at least a little of the awe you feel with this book.