November 22, 2017


Mouseling’s Words. By Shutta Crum. Pictures by Ryan O’Rourke. Clarion. $16.99.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     An exceptionally charming book that manages to merge a cat-and-mouse tale with a story about growing up and finding oneself, Shutta Crum’s Mouseling’s Words enchants from the start with Ryan O’Rourke’s unusually warm-looking digital illustration of the silhouette of a small mouse standing in a backlit mouse hole at the side of a pirate-themed restaurant called The Swashbuckler. The softly rounded pictures, unusual in digital illustrations, are a big part of the book’s attraction, and are exceptionally well integrated with an unusually thoughtful storyline. The very first double page of the story itself shows Mouseling, who narrates the book, sleeping with many siblings beneath comforters made of words collected by the young mice’s Aunt Tillie from menus, place mats, signs, food packages and other written material in the restaurant. The wall decorations are bottle caps labeled “Cola,” “Grape Soda” and “Pop!” And the mice are cuddled under “warm,” “noodles,” “yummy,” “zest,” “tidbit,” and so on. The story continues as the little mice set off from this pleasant nest on their own, one by one, until eventually only Mouseling is left – reluctant to leave all those wonderful words. But thanks to some persuasion by Father, Mother and Aunt Tillie, he finally agrees to explore the world outside – aided by a map that Aunt Tillie draws and that includes an ominous picture of a cat, labeled “The Beast.” Mouseling decides that his calling is to discover new words and bring them back to the nest, starting with the word “sing,” which he sounds out to himself and brings back – Father calls it “a right treasure.” The next day, Mouseling runs into a building that turns out to house a library – but he knows nothing about books, only about words, so he starts searching for them and finds “float” on a piece of paper that floats gently down onto…uh-oh…a cat! Mouseling carefully retrieves the word anyway; and over the next days, he says, “I climbed. I rappelled. I tunneled.” And in so doing, he uses words that will expand and enhance the vocabulary of young readers of the book. Crum has Mouseling find words in ways that reflect their meaning – “perfume” smells good, for example, because it comes from a small perfume sample packet. This becomes important when Mouseling re-encounters the cat while “nibbling on a milky word” – the word “milk” taken from a thrown-away milk carton. Because the word still has some actual milk on it, the cat sees it as a gift when Mouseling offers it, and the two potential enemies become friends, eventually bonding over (what else?) a story. This happens after the cat (whose name tag reads “Webster” – one nice touch among many) shows Mouseling that all the books are packed with words. Mouseling’s Words expertly conjures up a world of warmth and wonder from the mundane setting of word-bearing discards and book-lined library shelves. It is a genuine delight of a story that makes its own words, and so many others, simply wonderful.

     Word play of a very different sort, for a very different audience, lies at the heart of some of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strips. Pastis has made this playing around an integral part of Pearls Before Swine – by creating atrocious puns set up through elaborate word sequences by characters in the strip and perpetrated by Pastis’ in-strip avatar, the cartoonist drawing the cartoons including the cartoons of the cartoonist himself. It is worth noticing the amount of attention Pastis pays to words even as he tortures them and turns them inside-out for the sake of extended sequences with puns as their payoff. And it does not matter if you find the payoff puny: that is part of the joke, with the characters in the strip objecting vociferously and sometimes violently to the pun sequences – in which they have no choice but to take part (since they are, after all, cartoons being drawn by the cartoon Pastis, who is drawn by the real-world Pastis, in an ongoing exercise in existential angst). The title of the latest Pearls Before Swine collection, whose cover features Pig screaming and covering his ears in the style (sort of) of Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream,” calls directly on the “pun” elements of the strip. But the book’s contents, as always, include only some of those. Other sequences, just to cite two example, involve Judge Rat, who has a tip jar to influence his rulings and who slides along a tilted judge’s bench “to show that the scales of justice are not balanced in my courtroom”; and the discovery of a money tree, which turns Rat into “a tree-hugging hippie.” As for puns and other word play, one strip sets up the notion of Pig learning how to make wood into paper in a class taught from the pulpit by a priest who uses puppets to clarify what he says – making Pig “a pulpit puppet pulping pupil.” Another strip has Pig suggesting that an unwanted hamster be sent to “the city in Europe that they control,” which is “Hamsterdam” – and when Goat says that is not what the city is for, Pig asks, reasonably (at least from a language point of view), “Then what holds back the Hamster River?” Interestingly, although the elaborate pun setups garner most of the attention of the strip’s characters, it is often the simplest plays with (and on) words that are the most effective, as when Rat and Pig change the standard Halloween request for candy to “Trick or Tweet,” thus getting “more candy than ever” and leading Rat to comment that “social media is the key to extortion.” All right, that should be “are the keys” (since “media” is a plural noun), but that sort of word-related matter is not germane to Pearls Before Swine. This is a strip that starts where the love of words and love of libraries in Mouseling’s Words have metamorphosed into something altogether darker, more adult and nastier – and it makes perfect sense, in that context, to have the lovable little mouse of Crum and O’Rourke’s book be replaced by the surly, snide and sarcastic Rat in Pastis’ cartoons.

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