Mr Maxwell’s Mouse and Mrs Marlowe’s Mice are two of the most engaging children’s “picture” books I’ve read lately. Both stories manage to be endearing, amusing, and slightly dreadful: a mix that ultimately makes for a tense but compelling story. Devin Asch’s illustrations combining detailed realism and noir-esque style are a picture-perfect match for this narrative tension. The first book, Mr Maxwell’s Mouse, is more overtly horrific: a story about a cat ordering a live mouse at a posh restaurant, and the mouse’s attempts to argue his way out of being eaten. (One of the pictures shows the adorable mouse lying on a piece of toast with the knife an fork hanging over him.) Mrs Marlowe’s Mice exudes a more subtle horror, as the eponymous Marlowe is investigated for being a reported “mouse-keeper” (a cat who harbours mice in her home for purposes other than eating).
Both books emphasise the undercurrent of dread through the sparse directness with which they tell their stories. There are no wasted words and no wasted space in the narrative. To borrow from dramatic terms, both plots are tightly unified in terms of place and time: the narrative action of Mr Maxwell is limited to one lunch hour in the “Paw and Claw” restaurant, while that of Mrs Marlowe is limited to one evening in her home. Yet the books convey the sense of a detailed and completely developed world behind these concentrated scenes: a world in which some individuals have more power than other, in which tolerance is not encouraged, and in which the smaller, weaker mice are always in peril. These themes make sense given that the world is one run by cats — creatures who do tend, in reality, to torment mice and gobble them up. And the almost-comic antagonism between cats and mice is what keeps the books from being truly frightening (and, indeed, what makes them funny, along with the fact that the mice always win the day). The darker edge to both stories, however, can’t be overlooked — and perhaps have something to say about the way power works.
What really makes the books endearing is the way that not all cats are merciless, unfriendly, or uncaring. Some, like Mr Maxwell, feel badly for their dinners — and some, like Mrs Marlowe, are courageous and loyal, even if it means breaking the rules of catdom and risking their own safety.
20 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Asch, Frank and Devin Asch. Mr Maxwell’s Mouse. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2004.
—–. Mrs Marlowe’s Mice. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2007.