April 5, 2012

The Lion and the Mouse

The Lion and the Mouse
By Jerry Pinkney; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Primary Little Brown 40 pp.
978-0316013567 Hardcover $16.99
Fiction / Fable

The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney's wordless retelling of Aesop's fable, is an intensely graceful book. It's multi-layered appeal is due entirely to the illustrations, for which Pinkney won the Caldecott in 2009. The watercolors on each page render the story so eloquently that even the idea an accompanying text is superfluous. What few words there are - the owl's "Who, whooo" and "screech", for example - are natural, onomotopoeic sounds that help contextualize the world of the story without imposing one particular, authorial moral over all other possibilities.

Pinkney's mouse and lion live on an African plain, a fact established by the densely populated fore-papers, crowded with zebras, elephants, monkeys and lions among many other beasts. The title page shows the mouse curled up worriedly in the lion's paw print, an elegant way to set the two protagonists in their respective slots on the food chain. From there we follow the mouse through a textured, watercolor dawn in which an owl swoops and threatens, making it clear that a mouse's life in the savannah is a stressful one at best. But the mouse, having evaded the owl, is not out of the woods yet, for  the safe spot he finds himself is on the lion's back. The lion is shockingly expressive, and though the illustrations are photo-realistic, his face manages to convey both good-humor and compassion without ever seeming cartoon-ish. The mouse, meanwhile, makes the case for his freedom with mouse-like silence and humble appeal. The two then return to their respective lives until the lion is captured in a poacher's net (the indignity of the trap, as illustrated by Pinkney, is genuinely upsetting). The intrepid mouse comes to the rescue (looking quite pleased with himself) and gnaws through the ropes, setting the king of beasts free.

What I loved about Pinkney's version of this popular fable is that his illustrations captured the nobility and kindness of both creatures. Neither had to learn compassion. Both simply behaved with honor, though the book's wordlessness does allow for any number of interpretations. As far as benefits to young readers go, there are several, but the idea that kindness begets kindness overlays the whole thing and there are a lot of nice opportunities to talk about that with a toddler. (You can even ask questions like, "if you were the lion, what would you do?"). The wordlessness also gives toddlers the opportunity to "read" the pictures and create the narrative for themselves, meaning that it can be different every time or comfortingly consistent. For all these reasons, The Lion and the Mouse is a lovely book, one that fully deserves the high honors it received.

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