Only the jaded should write reviews of children’s books. Oh, it makes sense! Think about it. Children’s books are where the saccharine and overblown and overbearing go to die. Things that wouldn’t cut it in the greeting card world somehow manage to live, thrive, and survive as treacly picture books. Is it any wonder that I say hurrah for the candid, cynical, tell-it-like-it-is reviewers of the world? If I am a parent and there is any danger AT ALL that my child is going to ask me to read and reread and reread again a piece of tripe that calls itself a children’s book, I at least want some forewarning. I have great love for the sardonic stripe of reviewer. Anyone who has honed their teeth on the literary darlings of sweetness & light. So I sometimes wonder if having my own kids has made me more inclined towards books with a glint of true emotion amidst the adorableness. With that in mind, I guess I could be forgiven for initially thinking that Charlie & Mouse wouldn’t work for me. Heck the eyeballs of these kids take up half their heads as it is. Yet when I read this story what I found was a quietly subversive, infinitely charming, eerily rereadable early chapter book not just worth reading but worth owning. It may be a standalone book for now, but if Charlie and Mouse fever grips this mighty nation of ours you’re gonna want to be first in line to own a copy yourself.
In four short stories we get to see a day in the life of brothers Charlie and Mouse. Chapter One: Lumps, consists of Charlie conducting a very serious conversation with the friendly lump that shares his bed. Chapter Two: The Party has our heroes inviting every kid on their block to “the neighborhood party” thereby guaranteeing its success (and existence). Chapter Three: Rocks is an examination of how a kid can make money when all they have is a red wagon and the rocks in their yard. Finally, Chapter Four: Bedtime Banana inspires a new chapter in Charlie and Mouse’s bedtime routine, and closes out their busy day.
I think I read somewhere (WARNING: Unsourced hearsay and conjecture approaching – proceed at your own risk) that much of this book came into existence as author Laurel Snyder took note of the things her own boys said and did and proceeded to write down. As any children’s librarian who has been on the job more than six months will tell you, within our profession there is an understanding that you will be approached by a very sweet children’s book author at some point during your career (probably multiple times) and that they will hand you their book saying that it was inspired by the cute things their own children or grandchildren have said. Such origins do not guarantee quality . . . except in the case of Charlie & Mouse. As I may have mentioned or alluded to before, my tolerance for the cutesy is distinctly low. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered that while the characters of Charlie and Mouse are undeniably cute, they are not cloying. They are not vying for your love. They are living their lives, doing what they want to do, and if what they do happens to be cute, so be it, but that is not their prerogative.
In my travels I’ve heard Charlie & Mouse compared to Arnold Lobel’s Frog & Toad books. To be honest, any book featuring two characters that don’t feel like ripping one another’s eyeballs out at some point inevitably gets compared to Frog & Toad. Charlie & Mouse however goes beyond the simple template of two friendly male characters performing small adventures. The most obvious example is found in both the first and last stories. Charlie awakens in the first to find a lump next to him in bed. He proceeds to talk with it and the sleepy lump is distinctly uninterested in getting up. This is pretty similar to the Frog & Toad story “Spring” where grumpy Toad appears for much of the tale as a sleepy lump in a bed. If Mouse had gone so far as to say “Blah” it would have clinched the comparison. Still, I would say that Charlie & Mouse does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Lobel if only because in this book Snyder has mastered a similar tone. Because I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old I’m very keen on books with gentle tones that I can read to both kids simultaneously. Charlie & Mouse taps into a kind of free-range childhood that is very enticing to kids today, and it does that by feeling oddly classic.
Keeping her vocabulary simple, author Laurel Snyder builds the world of Charlie & Mouse with restrained skill. You instantly understand the relationship between the brothers from the start. First off, they share an enormous bed (a fantasy of younger siblings everywhere, I’ll attest) so they must get along pretty well. And while Mouse is initially reluctant to get up, once Charlie gets him on board he happily joins in on waking the parental units at, the clock indicates, 5:45 in the morning. Then there’s the writing itself. Snyder’s phrasings are beautifully worked throughout the text. When their mom asks if having a banana at bedtime is “a thing” the 21st century parent will understand instantly what that means (and so, for that matter, will the kids). Plus there are jokes, both visual and evident in the text. I give a lot of points for jokes these days.
An illustrated book for children is a partnership in the purest sense of the word. Though there are plenty of books that lean heavily on the strength of their illustrators (see: All celebrity picture books . . . ever) if the text is piss poor then you’re not going to find that the book has much in the way of staying power (some overly sentimental picture books being, perhaps, the most notable exception to this rule). Likewise if the text is brilliant and the pictures ho-hum then the book might win critical acclaim but not sell well. For this reason, authors have been known to sacrifice small woodland creatures to the pitiless gods of illustration selection (i.e. editors) when it comes to their accepted manuscripts. Hit the jackpot and you’re good to go for life. Miss your chance and it’s sayonara, sweetheart. How many twitchy nosed bunnies Laurel Snyder slaughtered beneath the blood red moon of autumntide, we may never know, but one thing is clear. Emily Hughes is, without a doubt, the most perfect artist to be paired with this particular text.
I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t recognize Emily’s art or style when I read this book the first eight or nine times (my kids really dig it). It took a co-worker to point out to me that she was the artist behind that magnificent celebration of feral children everywhere Wild. In that book Hughes let loose her love of modified chaos. That wasn’t a book of man vs. nature. It was a book of nature/little girl vs. man. Here Hughes reigns in her penchant for unabashed green frenzy, but her influences remain Hawaiian. Born in Hilo, Hawaii but living these days in Brighton, England, Hughes places distinctly Hawaiian elements in and about this book. From the flora and fauna (it’s not every house that grows birds of paradise in the front yard) to the design of the houses (take special note of Mr. Erik and Mr. Michael’s) to the fact that the two stop by Sakamoto’s Shave Ice at one point. Oh yeah. We’re in Hawaii now, baby.
In Hughes’s hands everything that happens in the book is given this patina of safety. Children pull wagons full of rocks from one neighbor to another without adult supervision (though notice how cleverly Hughes keeps you from noticing that Charlie & Mouse’s mom and dad are accompanying them to the park off-camera, so to speak). It’s a 21st century fantasy for both children and adults, but it’s also a truly 21st century book due to some of the choices Hughes has made. When Laurel Snyder included the gay neighbors Mr. Erik and Mr. Michael, that was pretty awesome, but let’s look at Mouse as well. For much of the book Mouse is an androgynous character. Pronouns are nonexistent until the very end of the book when we learn that, “Mouse brushed his teeth.” Until that point we’ve watched Mouse don white cowboy books with gold spurs, a pink tutu, and a headband of deely-boppers. None of this is commented on. None of this is even in the text but it’s there and it is, to be frank, awesome.
I get sort of excited about early chapter books. When they’re good, that is. As any perusal of an early chapter book section in a library or bookstore will show you, you’ve gotta wade through a lot of treacle to get to the good stuff. Charlie & Mouse is the good stuff you’re wading towards. Short and funny and even touching, these are characters your kids are going to want to spend a lot of time with. Let’s hope Snyder and Hughes oblige them for the next few years.
On shelves April 11
Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
- Barkus by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Marc Boutavant
- The Mouse and Mole books by Wong Herbert Yee
Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes (my favorite review of this book)