September 21, 2017


The Mouse and His Child. By Russell Hoban. Illustrated by David Small. Scholastic. $9.99.

Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     Some books show their age; some wear it proudly; and some transcend it. There are a few classics for children that even transcend their genre and reach out not only to young readers but also to anyone who ever was young. These are books such as Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Mouse and His Child. Russell Hoban’s novel is half a century old now – the new printing is marked “50th anniversary edition” – and is an amazing book to rediscover or encounter for the first time. One thing that makes this novel so special is the possibility of reading it on multiple levels, as anything from a simple adventure to a fall-from-grace story with spiritual overtones. Another special element is the use of language not usually found in children’s books, including words that fit the story perfectly while expanding young readers’ vocabulary: “chthonic,” “raffishly patrician,” and many more, sometimes laid on so thickly that kids and adults alike will find them as over-the-top as Hoban intended them to be: “Absolutely nothing! Accretions and abstractions of annotated nothing. Bafflements of nothing. Charismas, demiurges, and epiphanies of nothing.” Yet another outstanding part of the book is the way Hoban echoes great literature for adults within it – works that children almost certainly will not know but may encounter later in life, at which point they will think back to where they first heard the words from them. There are, for example, eyes that “blazed up in the gloom, staring in wild surmise” (a reference to Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer), and two separate mentions that “the child is father to the mouse” (from Wordsworth’s “the child is father to the man” in The Rainbow). And there is a hilarious sendup of Waiting for Godot, very funny even for those who do not catch the satire, in a comment about “Furza and Wurza representing as they do the very ISness of TO BE, cloaked in fun and farce.”

     Yet there is nothing essentially complex or overwrought in the basic story of The Mouse and His Child. It is the tale of a windup toy, a larger and smaller mouse joined at the hands so that, when wound with a key, they dance in a circle – and the adventures they have when their existence as a plaything is ended by an accident that damages the toy. The notion of toys with feelings is nothing new for children today, certainly not for anyone familiar with Pixar movies such as Toy Story and its successors – but Pixar was founded only in 1986, nearly two decades after Hoban wrote The Mouse and His Child. The emotionalism of the book, its thoughtfulness and pervasive sadness (“a world of love and pain were printed on her vision, never to be gone again”), were genuinely new at the time and retain their power today. Most of the book’s dated elements are satirical ones: the self-involved academic (here, a muskrat) determined to make a name for himself through great works, only to find when he accomplishes what he wishes that a journalist (here, a bluejay) declares it to be “not news”; and the sendup of avant-garde theater through a group called “The Caws of Art” (led by two crows), whose latest offering, The Last Visible Dog, causes a riot. A few now-old elements sit more uneasily in the 21st century, though. A tramp – that is, a hobo, not “tramp” in the newer, sexualized sense – appears at the start and end and is key, like mysterious and powerful beings of uncertain provenance in other tales, to setting the story in motion and bringing it to a conclusion; but this type of character is virtually unknown in children’s books today. And an important climactic scene includes a detailed description of train tracks and a train passing along them, “clacking through the switches” until at last “the yellow-windowed caboose and its red lantern dwindled into darkness” – but contemporary children may have no point of reference for this at all. Still, The Mouse and His Child is at its heart a quest story, and Hoban (1925-2011) tells it with all the flair of a writer of epics – which, on one level, it is. Unfortunately, Hoban’s excellent illustrations are omitted from the new edition, which instead uses ones by David Small that are quite well done but not always in keeping with the nuances of the story – for instance, the picture of a long-abandoned dollhouse that has been taken over by rats does not at all match the elaborate and very dark description of its appearance in the text. Nevertheless, the return of The Mouse and His Child is an occasion to celebrate: parents or grandparents who give this book to children, and perhaps read it with them, will be doing themselves as well as the young ones the great favor of delivering to them a world full of wonder, trouble, hurt and delight.

     Even older than The Mouse and His Child and even more directly dependent on the once-romantic notion of trains, Virginia Lee Burton’s first published book, Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away (1937), is also a quest adventure, but a much simpler one than Hoban’s and one much more easily resolved. The new edition, thank goodness, retains Burton’s excellent illustrations, although they have been colored, probably inevitably for a modern book (by Lauren Pettapiece). This edition includes an up-to-date bonus in the form of a free audio download in which the book is read by Burton’s son, Aristides, to whom Burton dedicated it (and who is charmingly shown as a child, surrounded by model-train layouts, on the original dedication page). A picture book rather than an extended novel, Choo Choo is a distinctly old-fashioned story of “a beautiful little engine” (a steam engine, no less – today’s kids will certainly need an explanation of what that means) who tires of pulling passenger coaches and decides to take off on her own. Everything about the book speaks of the time at which it was written, from the pipe-smoking engineer carrying a large oil can to the fireman (no, not a firefighter) who stokes the engine with coal to the conductor with his huge (analog) watch that “told the little engine when it was time to start.” Choo Choo is certainly a visit to the past, but it remains a charmer of a book. The basic “I want to get away” and “I could do better on my own” story is, after all, timeless: Choo Choo takes off one day as her three human attendants are having coffee in a restaurant, but instead of eliciting the admiration she expects to receive as she speeds along the tracks, she frightens people and animals, causes a multi-car pileup at a railroad crossing, has to leap a just-opening drawbridge, and eventually runs out of fuel on a disused siding and chugs to an unhappy halt. So much for adventure! The humans, of course, rescue Choo Choo and do not blame her for what has happened, and she, suitably chastised by her experience, returns happily to her pulling-passenger-coaches role. So all ends well for everybody. “I am not going to run away any more. It isn’t much fun,” thinks Choo Choo at the end. The message, about figuring out where you fit in and being happy about it, is not politically correct in 21st-century terms. But it retains its resonance, for children and adults alike, despite being communicated in Choo Choo using elements that are no longer part of the direct knowledge or experience of most modern readers.

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