October 20, 2016
(++++) ADVENTURES WITH RODENTS
Little Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $17.99.
Time Traveling with a Hamster. By Ross Welford. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
From central character to sidekick – that is the rodent road traveled between a picture book for ages 3-7 and an over-400-page novel for ages 10-14. Many adults may not think of rodents as particularly cuddly or endearing, but clearly many children do – as do plenty of authors. Babymouse, the creation of sister-and-brother team Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, has always been a charmer in elementary-school guise, as the protagonist of a series of graphic novels in which, among other things, she and the books’ narrator have some rather snarky give-and-take. Now the Holms are introducing a younger Babymouse, who at age four is already imaginative and trouble-prone and narrator-interactive. Little Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes starts with Babymouse eating all the Christmas cookies put out for Santa, then explaining to the mildly disapproving narrator that everyone bakes Santa cookies and that she, Babymouse, wants to make something different – maybe parfaits or tuna casserole or something. Or cupcakes! That’s the idea. So Babymouse helps her mom – making a mess, of course – and the cupcakes are left cooling while mom goes to take care of little brother Squeak. Babymouse decides to help by frosting the cupcakes, despite the narrator’s reminder that she is not supposed to touch them, and of course the kitchen is soon covered in pink frosting. Then Babymouse hears a dragon – she has asked Santa for a suit of armor in case a dragon shows up – and soon dresses herself in pots and pans and prepares to face off against the fire-breathing monster while riding boldly atop her giant squid. Giant squid? Babymouse is nothing if not inventive. A grand battle ensues, won by Babymouse with a well-placed binky (the roaring dragon, readers will quickly realize, is Babymouse’s loudly shrieking little brother); and then Babymouse celebrates by, um, eating just about all the cupcakes. By book’s end, even Santa is dismayed. But the inside back cover reveals that Babymouse does indeed get the suit of armor she wanted (from Mom and Dad) – as well as the tea set that the narrator suggested would be a more-appropriate gift (from Santa). So all ends, inevitably, happily.
There is also a happy ending in Time Traveling with a Hamster, the rather convoluted debut novel by Ross Welford, but the plot here is deucedly more complex and likely to stretch the thinking of preteens and young teenagers in some intriguing ways. The hamster, though, has a very distinctly subsidiary role: aside from having an unusual-for-a-hamster name (Alan Shearer), and helping get the plot going, it is not particularly germane to what happens. The reason it matters is that it is one of two gifts received by the book’s protagonist, a British Indian boy named Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury, on his 12th birthday. The other gift is what stirs the plot in ways quite clearly reflecting the central character’s name: it is a letter from Al’s father, written just days before his death when Al was eight. And the letter asks Al to save his father’s life, retrospectively, as it were, by finding the time machine – yes, time machine – that his father created (out of, as it turns out, an old Macbook, the traditional black box packed with electronics, and, amusingly, a zinc tub). Al, a solitary and rather lonely boy who is also intelligent and brave, is ideally suited to connect with readers who see themselves in him – and also ideally fit for the quest on which his father’s letter sends him. The book smacks to rather too great a degree of the Back to the Future movies, not only in plot and in features such as a mauve scooter (an obvious stand-in for the movies’ DeLorean), but also in its sometimes-uneasy mixture of light and serious narrative styles. There is some genuine thoughtfulness about the paradoxes of time travel here, though, and that renders Time Traveling with a Hamster more interesting than the usual escapist fare and may make it attractive to slightly older readers than the preteens who are general the target readers for books of this type. The writing is well-paced and age-appropriate, and the many mistakes that Al makes in trying to return to the time when his father was 12 – to prevent a portentous accident – are, within the limits of this genre, believable ones. Some elements of the book are a little odd, though, beyond the relative unimportance of the hamster, which at least makes it possible for Welford to give the novel an intriguing title. For one thing, the primary relationship in the book is not between Al and the hamster or even between Al and his father, but between Al and his grandfather, Byron, a fascinating character who immigrated to northeast England from the Punjab as a child and who is a memory expert – just the right expertise to play a crucial role in a book that, on a philosophical level, is about remembering the past and figuring out which parts of it can and cannot be changed. For another thing, Al’s father is a faintly unpleasant character: neither Byron nor Al’s mother (who has moved on with a new man, thus setting up the usual “coping with family changes” element of the plot) seems to have been particularly close to or enamored of him. In many ways, this book is about Grandpa Byron more than anyone. For example, when Al inadvertently changes the future in a failed attempt to fulfill his mission, Byron is changed the most by what has happened, and his pain is deep and real-feeling to an extent that Al’s own is not even though, after this change, Al is not even supposed to exist (Welford never explains how he does exist if his father and mother never met). Ultimately, this is a book that fits snugly in the fantasy genre and the time-travel subgenre. But it offers enough unusual twists and enough thoughtful handling of major issues (grief and loss, memory and change) to make it stand out despite some formulaic elements, unexplained occurrences, and plot creakiness. There is really not much here for rodent lovers, but there is plenty for preteen and young teenage readers to nibble on.