How do you tackle a weighty subject if you’re writing for children?
Two words: talking mice.
In hopes that summer vacation will afford families the leisure to read and think, I offer three classics of the genre, the best and strangest being “Stuart Little” by E.B. White.
Ostensibly, Stuart is a child who happens to look exactly like a mouse. Read between the lines, though, and Stuart is a starchy middle-aged man (who happens to look exactly like a mouse) and whose spiritual aspirations get all wrapped up in a bird, Margalo, rather the way those of the poet Dante Alighieri got all wrapped up in a girl, Beatrice.
Highfalutin it may be, but this book has been beloved by children since its appearance in 1945. They love it because Stuart races a sailboat in Central Park, takes a souvenir canoe on a river, and drives a toy sports car. They love it because, being smallish themselves, they relate to the perils faced by a smallish rodent.
At some level, though, I think children are also affected by Stuart’s quest, which — strangest of all — is left unfulfilled at the end of the story. Perhaps White was telling us to aspire to more, whether or not we have hope of achieving it.
From Stuart’s pedestal, it’s a short step to “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” by Robert C. O’Brien. The strange part of this book is its bifurcated structure. The story opens with Mrs. Frisby looking for help to save her home and her son, but soon we’re reading an extended flashback to rats escaping from the National Institute of Mental Health, where they were subjected to experiments that made them super-smart.
Unlike “Stuart,” O’Brien’s book incorporates an element common to most books in which animals stand in for humans (think “Animal Farm,” “Watership Down,” and the “Redwall” series): the depiction of an invented civilization. When the liberated rats set up under cover of a rosebush, they give O’Brien a chance to comment on, for example, the relationship between societal and individual morality.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Frisby gets to fly around with a crow and prove herself brave. But like the author, thoughtful readers will be most interested in the made-up world.
In contrast to the previous books, the structure of “The Tale of Despereaux,” by Kate DiCamillo is as tidy as a jigsaw puzzle. The book is told in sections, the first focused on Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears who loves light, stories, and music, the second on a rat whose broken heart mends in a crooked way, the third on an orphan who wants to be a princess. In the fourth section, the stories intersect neatly yet unpredictably.
“Despereaux” is written in the form of a chivalric romance, with the mouse as the knight who rescues a princess. There are also Christian echoes. The rat, like Satan, literally falls from grace. Despereaux’s father, like Judas, betrays the hero — but unlike Judas is eventually forgiven.
All this and humor, too. Consider the way Despereaux’s jailer brother speaks: “Geez! Cripes! You can’t learn can you?”
In the great tradition of mouse books, DiCamillo has created an alternative society, one whose dictates Despereaux flouts by falling in love with the human princess. Being a grown-up, I sympathized with the forces of order. By talking to a human, the renegade Despereaux really did threaten his community. Maybe sending him to the dungeon was actually a good idea.
My alternative reading probably won’t gain traction. But it’s a measure of the usefulness of talking mice that I even came up with it. Like the best books of all kinds, the best ones featuring talking animals are also thought provoking.
Martha Freeman’s 20 books for children include “Who Stole Uncle Sam?” which features an annual Memorial Day race in a town remarkably like Boalsburg.