Here in America 2015 is turning out to be a great year in terms of children’s literary imports. Authors and artists that I haven’t seen gracing the shores of our fair nation for years are suddenly returning en masse. Years ago I loved Ole Konnecke’s Anthony and the Girls. Now we get to see his You Can Do It, Bert! I’ve always been a fan of Frances Hardinge. Now we’re seeing her Cuckoo Song coming out in the late spring. But one of my favorites of all time, the piece de resistance, is Sebastian Meschenmoser. To my mind, he’s one of the greats. Back in 2006 I was charmed by his penguin-wanting-to-be-airborn title Learning to Fly. In 2009 he got even better with Waiting for Winter. And then? Nothing. We were denied further Meschenmoser-ness. So as a children’s librarian I’ve just been sitting here, biding my time. Imagine my delight when I learned that the publisher NorthSouth would be filling the Meschenmoser-shaped hole in my heart with the truly delightful Mr. Squirrel and the Moon. Taking a trope we’ve all seen before and then improving upon it, this is a lovely story of fur, false accusations (or fear thereof), guts, glutted field mice, and glory. Everything, in short, that a good children’s picture book should be.
A man and his son dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing relax on a hill, enjoying a wedge from one of the many wheels of cheese on their cart. As they do, a single wheel escapes its fellows and careens down the hill. The boy gives chase but stops when he sees that the dairy product has launched itself into a ravine. Soon thereafter Mr. Squirrel wakes up and finds what he believes to be the moon wedged in his tree. Naturally inclined to think of the worst possible scenario that might follow, he becomes convinced that he will be falsely accused of the moon’s theft. However, attempts to shift the moon only end up with it squashing a nearby hedgehog. When a billy goat butts the “moon” with his horns and then finds those same horns lodged in a tree (moon and hedgehog still attached) all seems lost. It takes a pack of field mice to free the crew of their burden . . . and then to launch the evidence into the stratosphere.
The European red squirrel is a tree squirrel native to Germany. It has a distinct advantage over its American counterparts – it’s cuter. Significantly so. Last seen in Meschenmoser’s Waiting for Winter, the man’s fondness for this particular cheeky rodent is clear. First off, the red plays very well against his muted palette. Next, he’s good at making a bleary squirrel. When we first meet Mr. Squirrel in this book he’s just woken up. Poking his head out of his tree his ears suffer a significant case of bed head and his eyes look like they’re in dire need of a good cup of coffee. As the weight of the situation sinks in, Mr. Squirrel’s fuzzy countenance exhibits all the dread and horror you’d expect of a furry woodland creature contemplating a life of imprisonment. Of all the animals in this book, Mr. Squirrel is the most expressive. His body language is fantastic, straining every muscle against the massive weight of the cheese or staring in rank horror at the almost entirely devoured “moon”. Other animals get their due, but only Mr. Squirrel takes home your heart.
Mr. Squirrel aside, Meschenmoser’s art is on fine display in this book. The use of color is fascinating. The moon/cheese is the brightest spot of color. A practically gaudy yellow set against scenes that seem mostly to have been sketched in pencil. When other colors appear they are sparingly done. The brown of the hedgehog’s lower eyelids. The striking green of the billy goat’s eye (though I did notice that the pupil was curiously round). But above and beyond all of that, the most enticing parts of the book involve Mr. Squirrel’s increasingly panicky dreams of his possible life in prison. With increasing ridiculousness the book will suddenly flash to a wordless two page sequence of Mr. Squirrel in jail. The first time it happens he’s in a tiny jumpsuit with a human cellmate (whom I suspect is modeled on Herr Meschenmoser himself), a tiny toilet against the wall. As the book progresses he envisions the moon back in the sky, but with a hedgehog still attached, and later a scene where he, the billy goat, the hedgehog, and all the mice are implicated in the crime (an even tinier toilet now in evidence along the wall). Are these sequences somewhat difficult to explain to my three-year-old? You betcha. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
There is a fine and longstanding tradition in picture books of characters yearning for the moon. Either they want to eat it, do eat it, fail to eat it, or yearn to eat it. I suppose it all traces back to thinking the moon is made out of cheese, but it does beg the question as to why mankind has raised its eyes to the skies for centuries and thought on some deep, primordial level, “I’d like to eat that shiny thing in the sky”. Chalk this up as just yet another link in the chain. With the return of Meschenmoser I hold out hope that we’ll be seeing more of his stuff in the future. More art. More oddities. More peculiarities singular to his own brain. And if they involve a couple more red squirrels along the way? All the better. As this book proves, squirrels, jail sequences, and edible heavenly bodies make for picture book gold. Delicious.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Mouse Who Ate the Moon by Petr Horacek
- Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
- Bringing Down the Moon by Jonathan Emmett
Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly
Other Reviews: BookPage