Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Rowan Samuel Ward. My grandson was born today! I'd swing this computer around my head like a lasso I'm so excited, but instead I'll rein in and control myself (particularly since it is not even my computer.) Rowan Samuel Ward. A strong name. "Blimey, 'e is a 'andsome baby, dat 'e is." Names are chain-linked to the theme of self-identity with deep roots in children's literature and common to coming-of-age stories. Richard Peck's tale involves a mouse narrator in search of his identity that goes on an adventure where he learns to embrace his individuality.

The mouse narrator has no name in this book. His tail is a question mark symbolizing his bucketful of constant questions he peppers his Aunt Marigold and other adults with on a daily basis. Marigold's typical response to him is some saying, "Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies" or her mantra, "Nameless is Blameless." Blameless this mouse is, but he still needs a name when he goes to the Royal Mews Mouse Academy for the first time. His school community names him, Mouse Minor, a condescending name that is a reminder of his insignificance, small size, and uncertain heritage. As a bully target, he spends more time fighting than learning it seems. When he accidentally breaks the cardinal rule of being seen in his school uniform by a human, Queen Victoria's granddaughter, he runs away in disgrace.

His adventure leads him from a cat's tail to a horse's ear to the Yeomice Guard. Convinced that Queen Victoria has magical abilities, he seeks her out to help him figure out who he is inspite of everyone telling him it is impossible to see the Queen. Set during the 1897 Diamond Jubilee in London, the Victorian flavor is found in the unique tone of voice in the characters. Mouse Minor's speech sounds a bit formal, while the servants dropped their "h"s in most sentences, and the hysterical bat bards sing in rhymes using speech that turns "w"s into "v"s such as, "Vat are dem black bits?" and has fun slang such as "blimey 'oo." Part one had a nice adventure. Part two I nodded to sleep. Part three I laughed out loud and loved how the author pulled the story together with some surprise twists.

Richard Peck's writing craft shows his command of the language. While the text has quite a few high vocabulary words the beautiful illustrations and repetition are helpful in determining some definitions. Some will need to be looked up. A favorite word, "susurrate" is used many times; others such as "convivial," "bilious," "accession," should give you an idea of what lies in store or what lies in story. The high vocabulary and cockney accents are hilarious, but might trip some readers up. This 200 page book would be a good read aloud. The author's play on words add humor along with the jabs at odd royalty traditions.

Mouse Minor asks "Who am I?" throughout the story which set me off like a hyperlink onto the concept of self-identity in stories. I've wasted quite a bit of time looking at scholarly articles on it. And when I did start hyperlinking from "looking glass self" to "self-categorization theory" to "Michelangelo phenomenon" I was completely confused. However, it did make me think about how novels can show an individual's pursuit of self-identity as well as societial influence on that identity. While on the one hand Mouse Minor is learning to embrace his individuality, he is also learning to conform to the structure of the mouse society that mirrors English society and culture exactly. At the end of the story he has found his place within his society and grown in confidence. I can't help but think of my new grandson, Rowan. "Who will he be?"

3.5 Smileys

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