Diane Prather: Young adult novel is an “enchanting” read

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Diane Prather

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This week’s novel for young adults is an example of storytelling at its very best. The story is absolutely enchanting.

“The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail” was written by Richard Peck and illustrated by Kelly Murphy. The novel has 15 chapters with one or two illustrations per chapter, and some are in color.

Peck has written more than 30 novels for children and young adults, and the honors he has received for writing are impressive, indeed. He’s the first children’s book writer to have been awarded a National Humanities Medal. He has won the prestigious Newbery Medal (for writing) as well as a Newbery Honor. Peck also has received the Scott O’Dell Award and a Christopher Medal and has been a National Book Award finalist — twice.

“The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail” is set in London, more specifically at Buckingham Palace and the Royal Mews, which is next door to the palace. Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India, is in power, and she’s about to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. The Mews is a royal stable where horses — also a cow, cat, an occasional goat and some humans — live.

The royal carriages are kept there, too. And then there are mice, lots and lots of mice.

Imagine the mouse passages beneath the Mews. Lots of them run in every direction, some of them even connecting the Mews to the palace, where even more mice live. There’s even a mouse hole behind the throne.

The book’s leading character is a little mouse, the smallest mouse in the Mews. The mouse doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t even know where he was born — perhaps the Mews, perhaps not. Aunt Marigold says that she found him under a cabbage leaf. His mother had died, so she took him home in her mending basket, put him in a pin box and pushed him under the housekeeper’s cooker so he’d stay warm.

Besides being small and nameless, the little mouse stands out for another reason. His tail is gray, and it’s “regular and standard-issue,” but it’s the shape of a question mark.

The little mouse doesn’t have a mother, but he has lots of aunts (not necessarily related) who take care of him. They are needle mice who sew all day long. Aunt Marigold is the head needle mouse. These mice make use of all sorts of items to sew clothes, leather belts and once, even a saddle.

Aunt Marigold uses a golden thread pulled from a carriage’s upholstery to sew a crest onto a uniform that she’s sewing for the little mouse. He will attend the Royal Mew Mouse Academy that’s located in a burrow under the human riding school. The school seats are alphabet blocks, and the desks are foot-long rulers. The headmaster is B. Chiroptera, who dresses in a black silk robe.

The little mouse doesn’t want to go to school, but Aunt Marigold insists. At the academy, the little mouse is known as Mouse Minor, and he’s so little that the other mice, like Trevor, son of the Mouse Controller of Stores, and Fitzherbert, son of Mouse Permanent Superintendent, pick on him. Mouse Minor has no friends. Each day, somebody takes his lunch and nobody wants to sit next. In other words, school is miserable.

So one day, Mouse Minor “breaks two rules when one would do,” and he flees the school, running up one tunnel and then another, until he finds himself in the light. Mouse Minor has come up right into the arena where the young humans are in the middle of riding classes. He comes face to face with Princess Ena of Battenberg and her horse.

It’s quite a shock for all involved. It isn’t often that a human looks down to see a mouse, dressed in a uniform, sitting there on his haunches, even bowing. And it isn’t often that a mouse observes a horse bucking its rider off. Mouse Minor runs off, but he can’t go back to the academy or to Aunt Marigold.

So it’s the beginning of an adventure for Mouse Minor, with the Diamond Jubilee celebration ready to began. It involves a lot of interesting characters, including a cat, Pegasus (Peg), the horse, Ian Henslowe, a Yeomouse and captain of the Yeomice of the Guard, riding a chipmunk. There’s a Queen of the Mice, too, and Queen Victoria even appears in the novel.

This book would be a great one to read aloud to children. It’s wonderful.

“The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail” is published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (2013). It costs $16.99 in hardcover.

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