Friday, May 23, 2008

Church Mouse by Graham Oakley

The first of the church mice stories by Graham Oakley sets the style and pace for each of the further adventures of the hilariously human mice. Arthur, the church mouse, feels lonely with only reformed cat Samson for company and invites all of the town mice to move into the church. At first, all goes well; the mice help out in return for cheese and life is good. But when Samson falls asleep during the Vicar’s sermon, the mice’s arrangement is ruined. However, thanks to a fortuitous burglar, Samson and the mice redeem themselves and there is a happy ending for everyone. This picture book is most suitable for children able to appreciate the ironic humor and detailed pictures, but will also be enjoyed by younger children, who can follow the action through the illustrations, and older children who will catch the sly jokes embedded in the text and illustrations. It is not suitable for large groups, as the pictures are fairly small and detailed.

The format of the illustrations and text shifts from page to page. The first page is a full-spread illustration of the village seen from above, with the single sentence of introductory text inset in the corner. The village is a mixture of modern and medieval, the older architecture of the houses and shops mixed with television aerials and cars, giving a picture of a traditional village moving comfortably into the modern world. The lines of the drawing direct the audience’s attention to the church, showing its central importance to the village and the story. After this introduction to the general setting, the rest of the story is told in illustrations of varying sizes interspersed with blocks of text. All of the illustrations are strongly realistic in style and the broader panoramas have the slightly fuzzy quality of a watercolor or unfocused photograph.

These individual illustrations tell a story of their own, at times paralleling and enhancing the narrative contained in the text but more often providing a humorous reinterpretation of the apparently bland narrative. For example, in the second coupling of illustration and text, the words read alone are without particular interest, “Arthur liked living in a church. For one thing, he was very fond of music, particularly if it was loud.” However, added to the picture of Arthur balancing on an ornately carved pillar directly in front of the organ’s pipes, his tail and whiskers streaming out behind him, eyes closed in ecstasy and conductor’s baton raised, these simple phrases become subtly humorous. Other small touches, such as Arthur meditating while perched upon the nose of a statue, perfectly express the dry wit of the story.

The illustrations have a strong background of earth colors, the multitudes of gray and brown mice, their colors shifting with the surrounding setting, the stone and brick of the church, the deep orange of Samson the cat, all linking the animals to the country village and maintaining its rural flavor. However, dashes of bright color hint at increasing modernization, as seen in a bright red car and the sometimes garish clothes of the villagers. In the third section of the narrative, after Samson and the mice’s disgrace, the illustrations shift the story, first changing in format to cover double pages and allow for larger blocks of text, but also reemphasizing the earth colors in the wood of the empty church and then warming into the evening fire and Samson and Arthur’s miserable disgrace. After this transition, the story shifts back to the sets of illustration and text, all of the illustrations being drawn in blue and white shades showing the night-time action of the burglar and his apprehension by Samson and the mice.

A great deal of the humor of the story derives from the detailed expressions on the character’s faces. Although the mice remain a largely anonymous group, excepting only Arthur and his new rival and sometimes friend Humphrey the school mouse, each mouse is drawn with a specific expression and role in each individual illustration. They are lifelike in their general anatomy, but anthropomorphized in expression and movement. Their strong communal attitude is expressed in their consistent portrayal in groups, both large and small. Samson also contributes to the hilarity of the tale, continuously being drawn into the mice’s plans against his will, as can be seen in his patient but at times bewildered expression.

Although in some ways the book could be considered outdated, especially in the clothing of the townspeople and a few British cultural references in the text, the innate humor and action of the story and illustrations remains. Younger children especially will enjoy the narrative and action of the pictures themselves, as the groups of mice alternately argue and cooperate in their tasks and adventures. This is a story children can enjoy again and again, finding new elements as they grow older and catch the irony and sarcasm conveyed by the combination of text and art or discover hidden jokes in the illustrations themselves.

Verdict: FYI this review is extremely lengthy because it is actually an assigned review I wrote in graduate school. Anyways. While the church mice aren't for everyone, enough parents will rediscover them with joy that it's worth hunting down the reprint of the first title at least.

ISBN: 978-1935279693; Published September 2010 by Kane Miller (reprint - I've reviewed it later with commentary on changes); Borrowed from the library; Used original edition purchased for my personal collection

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