March 08, 2012


Mouse Was Mad. By Linda Urban. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Sandpiper. $6.99.

Penny and Her Song. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $12.99.

Seekers #6: Spirits in the Stars. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $6.99.

Seekers: Return to the Wild #1—Island of Shadows. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $16.99.

     One of the most amusing “mood” books published in recent years, Linda Urban’s Mouse Was Mad, which originally came out in 2009, is now available in paperback – and practically a must-have for parents whose kids throw occasional temper tantrums (that is, for just about everyone). Mouse is so mad – we never find out why – that his anger won’t fit within the regular pages of the book. Henry Cole’s marvelous illustrations start displaying it the minute you get inside the cover: even before the title page, Mouse has jumped and shrieked and acted out in seven different poses. There’s an eighth on the title page and a ninth on the dedication page – oh, this is one really big temper tantrum! (And that count doesn’t even include Mouse scowling, hands on hips, on the front cover.) But it seems that Mouse doesn’t quite do anger right, as the other animals tell him. He gets “hopping mad,” but Hare hops better; he is “stomping mad,” but Bear’s stomping is much more effective; he becomes “screaming mad,” but his screams cannot compare with Bobcat’s. And what is worse, every time Mouse tries to imitate the other animals’ impressive displays, something goes wrong and he ends up in a mud puddle. The pictures of Mouse are hilarious, and he is so cute in the first place – wearing striped overalls – that it is impossible to take his hissy fit seriously. Eventually Mouse gets so frustrated with his inability to show how angry he is that he freezes in place. And that turns out to be something that he does better than any of the other animals – and something that also results in Mouse not being angry anymore. This is not a “teaching” book about why not to get mad or how to express anger appropriately – it is a romp with an unlikely subject, and the sort of book that parents can use to calm down their oh-so-angry children, if they can redirect the kids’ focus long enough to have them pay attention to something other than their anger.

     Penny is a very different sort of mouse. In Penny and Her Song, she is lovable and enthusiastic, having come home from school with a wonderful counting song that she can’t wait to share with her parents and the babies. But, in the first part of Kevin Henkes’ easy-to-read book for ages 4-8, the timing is never quite right for Penny to sing: she will wake up the babies. The song really, really wants to burst forth, so Penny tries singing it to herself, but that isn’t very satisfying; nor is singing it to her glass animals. Distracting herself by playing doesn’t work, either. And Penny’s parents will not let her sing at the dinner table. But Penny accepts all of this good-naturedly, although with some impatience, and when she finally does get to sing the song, after dinner, everyone enjoys it so much that the whole family ends up singing along, then putting on a little show with the song as the centerpiece. At bedtime, Penny worries about remembering her song overnight, but that concern proves unfounded, with Penny recalling it happily in the morning after her music has transformed a whole evening into a very pleasant one for the entire family – and for families that read this book together, too.

     Animal endeavors are considerably more serious, and intended for older readers (ages 10 and up), in the Seekers series from Erin Hunter, pen name of a four-person team: authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Tui Sutherland, and editor Victoria Holmes. The Erin Hunter Warriors books, elaborate stories about clans of feral but noble cats, are the ones for which the team is best known, but the Seekers series, written by Sutherland and Baldry, is expanding as well. Because these stories focus on bears, non-domesticated animals with which young readers cannot have social interactions as they can with cats, Seekers is less immediately accessible than Warriors and feels somewhat more distancing. But the authors are certainly trying to make these determined bears as appealing as possible. The sixth and final book of the original Seekers sequence, Spirits in the Stars, originally published last year, is now available in paperback. Toklo (grizzly bear), Kallik (polar bear) and Lusa (black bear) are found here in Kallik’s territory – the ice – along with their shapeshifting guide, Ujurak. The cold and snow take their toll on Toklo and Lusa, but the friends are in less dire straits than the bears they eventually encounter on land, which are ill with some unknown condition that the friends need to figure out, even if it means the seeking of one of their number will end in this frozen place. There is a fairly straightforward environmental message in this (+++) book, as well as some heart-tugging nobility of purpose and action, the result being a satisfactorily hopeful conclusion to the sequence even though readers’ connection to the bears is likely to be weaker than it is to the cats in Warriors.

     And the bears’ story is not over: a new series, Return to the Wild, is just beginning. The first book, which also gets a (+++) rating, picks up where Spirits in the Stars left off, as the three remaining friends begin their journey home from the land of ice. What happens is not particularly surprising – they encounter friends and enemies and need to decide which bears they can trust and which they cannot – but readers who enjoy Seekers will find this continuation satisfying. In Island of Shadows, Kallik and Lusa are eager to return home to their families, their quest complete. But Toklo is frightened and feels very much alone. When the three companions reach the ice-covered, mountainous island of the book’s title, an accident leads them into a maze of tunnels and all three look for a sign to guide them. And they find one – or Toklo believes they do. It is a cub named Nanulak, half polar bear and half grizzly bear, who has lost his whole family and, Toklo believes, has been sent to the three friends by Ujurak. Toklo happily takes charge of Nanulak, glad that he again has a companion who needs his protection. But Kallik and Lusa are not so sure that Nanulak is what he seems to be – they fear that he may be concealing something that will endanger them all. And then Ujurak appears in the bears’ dreams with a warning, and all three have to decide how to interpret the vision and decide what to do about Nanulak and their own trek homeward. There is nothing particularly original in this story arc: adventurers brought together for a quest complete it despite hardship and the loss of one of their number, then turn homeward and encounter still more challenges. What makes the story special is simply that it involves bears rather than humans, hobbits or starfarers. Fans of Seekers will enjoy this extension of the original series; they are really the only audience at which the new set of books is directed.

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