August 23, 2007


Clarence the Copy Cat. By Patricia Lakin. Pictures by John Manders. Dragonfly. $6.99.

Nicolas, Where Have You Been? By Leo Lionni. Random House. $16.99.

      Mice make particularly good stand-ins for kids in books for young children: they’re small, cute (at least in artists’ renderings), mischievous, and have a lot to learn. They’re not always the good guys, though. In Clarence the Copy Cat – originally published in 2002 and now available in paperback – mice are a problem, and a well-meaning cat finds a creative way to be the solution. Clarence is a gentle cat, and even though his parents are expert mouse catchers, he doesn’t want to hurt anything, not even a mouse. Clarence knows mice can be a problem – they “ate the deli meats and scared the customers” at the shop where he and his parents lived. But Clarence is peaceful and nonviolent and just can’t bear to harm anything. As a result, he is turned away from every shop where he tries to make a home. But then he turns up at the town library, where he is welcomed, and where he gains his nickname for his habit of sitting atop the copy machine and watching people come and go. Then, one day, a mouse shows up, and even at the urging of the friendly librarian, Clarence just can’t bear to catch the pest. So he hatches an amusingly wrong-headed plan to keep mice out – and when that fails, resigns himself to losing yet another home. But something unexpected happens, and Clarence inadvertently finds a way to get rid of the mouse without hurting it at all – thanks to his close acquaintance with the copy machine. Patricia Lakin tells the story amusingly, and John Manders’ illustrations fit it wonderfully well, giving Clarence both feline and human poses and characteristics. The mouse is actually pretty cute, too, but in this case it’s really just a mouse.

      Not so the mice in Nicolas, Where Have You Been? Leo Lionni’s lovely little 1987 fable is now out in a top-notch new edition, and it remains as sensitive and thoughtful as ever. Nicolas and the other mice resent birds, with good reason: the mice eat berries, but birds snatch the good ones before the mice can get to them. Nicolas decides to find a berry patch that the birds have not yet discovered, but instead he gets snatched by a bird and is carried away. He struggles, and the bird drops him – into the nest of another bird. But the three little birds in the nest, and their mother, are very different from the mean one that picked Nicolas up. Everyone tells stories and sings together, and the mother bird even brings Nicolas extra-sweet berries. But birds do leave the nest, and when Nicolas wakes up one morning to find his friends gone, he is so sad that he can’t even eat the luscious fruit they have left for him. Nicolas climbs down from the nest, finds his mouse friends, and tells them his story – leading them to shout for war against all birds when he talks about being grabbed and carried away. But then Nicolas tells the rest of his tale, and just as he finishes, the friendly birds show up, bringing berries for everyone, and old Uncle Raymond presents the moral: “One bad bird doesn’t make a flock.” It’s a simple and lovely bit of instruction, delivered as pointedly as the moral of an Aesopian fable but without sounding preachy – and being made all the more palatable by Lionni’s thoroughly delightful collage illustrations.

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