The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His ChildI have developed an interest in young adult and children’s stories. I find the freedom and creativity the genre affords interesting and the reading relaxing.  So when I saw a hardback copy of Russell Hoban‘s The Mouse and His Child for sale at the local library for a dollar I grabbed it.

I was unfamiliar with the story despite its being labeled as a children’s classic.  I was vaguely aware of the Francis the Badger stories, but not any of Hoban’s other works.  But I figured it would be an interesting read for me now and good for reading to my kids as they get older. Plus, it was a dollar!

First published in 1967, the story follows a windup toy mouse and his child – joined at the hands – who finds themselves out in the world after their useful lives as toys ends.  They are forced to flee from the Manny the Rat who seeks to use them in his efforts to take control over the dump.  This is the impetus for a grand and harrowing adventure as they seek to not only survive but to achieve the child mouse’s dream of having a family, to establish their own “territory” and becoming “self-winding.”

It turned out to be a pleasant surprise; not your typical children’s story by any means.  It manages to portray an unflinchingly honest recognition of the sometimes cruel nature of life without descending into despair or getting to dark.  It mixes an adventure story with wry humor and allegorical and philosophical riffs.  While the basic story of the mouse and his child is a simple and enjoyable one for young people, there is enough depth, complexity, and adult humor to keep the older readers interested.

It is also filled with great characters.  The father is a kind of stoical figure who obviously loves his son but who always tries to avoid getting his hopes up while showing determination to carry on nonetheless. The son is full of youthful enthusiasm and hope; he desperately believes he can achieve his dreams.  Many the Rat is a classic bad guy – but Hoban throws in some twists and turns to keep you guessing about his true nature.  Then there is the frog who may or may not be able to see the future; the philosopher and scholar snapping turtle; the Muskrat teacher who has philosophies of his own; a experimental theatre group called the Caws of Art led by a couple of Crows; and a menagerie of other animal characters.  (And the reissued Scholastic version has the added benefit of wonderful illustrations by David Small to capture these great characters.)

What pulls all of this together is Hoban’s writing and sense of humor.  Despite the fact that it is structured as a classic adventure story it really doesn’t have the feel of just another kids story with talking animals.  It is unique in its style and perspective.

A site devoted to Hoban’s work sums it up best:

For all its elegant simplicity, The Mouse and His Child is a surprisingly moving and thought-provoking story, encompassing powerful themes of redemption and transformation. Frequently disturbing due to its unflinching depiction of life’s cruelty (I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book in which so many characters die suddenly), it is nevertheless an ultimately uplifting triumph of the–er, windup animal spirit.

If, like me, you are unfamiliar with this story I highly recommend it for young and old readers alike.  This one is a keeper for the whole family.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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