October 12, 2006


Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $16.95.

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences. By Richard Wilbur. Harcourt. $10.95.

     Reprints provide a wonderful opportunity to reassess a work for children, seeing whether its style and message retain their effectiveness after a few years or many.  Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, first published in 1969, has held up very well indeed.  It’s one of Leo Lionni’s charming and charmingly illustrated stories, whose lovely collage artwork gives the simple tale greater style than the words alone possess.  Actually, in this case, the words themselves are pretty good: Lionni tells of a real mouse who is always chased and who constantly risks mousetraps when all he wants is a few crumbs of food…and a wind-up mouse who can move only when the humans wish, but who is constantly cuddled and cared for at those times, welcomed with warmth and joy as a beloved toy of a girl named Annie.  Alexander, the real mouse, becomes very friendly with Willy, the wind-up mouse, but a little jealous as well, wishing he too could be a wind-up toy and “be cuddled and loved.”  It turns out that there is a way to do just that, through the offices of a magic lizard, so Alexander sets off to find the lizard and do what he must to get his wish.  But the wish changes form when Alexander finds out that Willy and a number of other old toys are going to be thrown away – because Annie got a lot of new toys for her birthday and wants to play with them now.  This realization causes Alexander to change his wish – and there is, after some age-appropriate drama, a happy ending and a celebration of friendship.  Kids and parents alike will enjoy both the gently uplifting message and the wide variety of art, from the broom with which Alexander is chased to the dark but full-moon-illuminated night during which Alexander rushes home after making his wish.

     Richard Wilbur’s drawings are simpler and more amusing than Lionni’s, and his poems reach for a wider age range through their puns and word play.  But Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences, originally published in 2000, seems a trifle stale and a little too slick for its own good: “What is the opposite of fleet?/ Someone who’s slow and drags his feet./ Another’s an armada that’ll/ Engage the first fleet in a battle.”  Or: “I wonder if you’ve ever seen a/ Willow sheltering a hyena?/ Nowhere in nature can be found/ An opposition more profound:/ A sad tree weeping inconsolably!/ A wild beast laughing uncontrollably!”  Wilbur seems so fond of his cleverness that he creates a book whose intended audience is difficult to discern: “The opposite of doughnut? Wait/ A minute while I meditate./ This isn’t easy. Ah, I’ve found it!/ A cookie with a hole around it.”  Give the book a (+++) rating for sheer bounce and liveliness, but thumb through it carefully before buying to decide if you and your family will enjoy this sort of thing.

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