Two Mice

two miceThis little book packs a whole lotta wow per square inch. It took me some time to see everything it has to offer, but now that I have, I'm totally sold. (Philip Nel raved, too; Two Mice "exemplifies the elegant efficiency of the picture book" and "unfolds with perfect economy.")

Before we even open the book, there's much to remark on. First, of course: the unusually small trim size (6 1/4 inches by 8 inches), perfect for the small scope of the 1,2,3 structure and for preschoolers' hands. Then the cover illustration itself, with its two active, happy mice, invites us in with its ebullient sense of motion — we want to find out where these guys are going and to follow them into the book. The color palette is soft but rich; the shapes are distinct; the landscape is distinctly Ruzzier-esque. And the roundness of the clouds is echoed in the shape of the mice's ears.

Will the Real Committee notice that one mouse has spots on its back and the other is plain white? It's important — in the story, of course, but also here on the cover. Because: on the paper jacket, the plain mouse is in the lead, but when you remove the paper dust jacket and look at the cover, the mice are reversed: now it's the spotted mouse who is in front. If you are aware of the theme (one that goes well beyond a trite "sharing is good"), it's just genius. The theme is executed perfectly on that jacket/cover combo, and we haven't even opened the book yet.

Two Mice continues to stand out once we do. The story's structure is unique in my experience. Using only the numbers 1,2,3 (as opposed to 10, or even 100) in a counting book? Nope, never seen that before. Telling a story with just those numbers? Again, no. And though the story is a simple one, it's also profound and, indeed, archetypal. Leave home, have an adventure, return home — altered, changed. And the predictable structure should aid preschoolers in their comprehension of the story and let them predict what might be coming next.

I find the palette both soothing and unsettling. We see pink hills and orange water and purple rocks. So it's a bit alien. And yet, when you see the book as having a sunrise-to-night timeline, the pink skies in the morning and the dark blue skies at the end give the alien world of the book a familiar feel and anchor the story with an identifiable arc. (And note how the endpapers reinforce that arc: orange, like the sunrise, to start; night-sky blue to close.)

What of the compositions of the illustrations? Our attention is always on the two mice, but Ruzzier does so much with the backgrounds and the landscapes. Round shapes almost always pair with horizontal lines, adding tension to the compositions. In the beginning the clouds are round, with the horizontal lines of the water below them, but by the end those clouds have flattened into horizontal strata that visually (and comfortingly) feel like they are putting a layer of blankets over the mice as they head home after their big adventure.

Let's remind ourselves of some of the Caldecott criteria:
"In identifying a 'distinguished American picture book for children,' defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:

  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;

  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;

  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;

  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;

  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience."

I think Two Mice meets and exceeds all these criteria, but its "delineation of theme" may have special resonance this year. If in the children's book world we are (finally) becoming truly concerned with equality and justice — well, that's what this book is about. It's about how arbitrary privilege is. Why should the mouse with the spots have to follow the plain mouse (on the dust jacket)? Well, it doesn't. It might just as well be the plain mouse who has to follow the spotted mouse (on the cover). Is it fair that the spotted mouse gets two cookies, while the plain mouse gets only one? No, of course not. Is it right that the spotted mouse has to do all the work rowing the boat while the plain mouse gets to put its feet up and relax? Again, no. And the only way to redress the lack of fairness is: Sharing. Equity. Making a world where working together and eliminating privilege equals happiness. Of course, I realize that a picture book about two cute little white mice ... yeah, it won't swell our diversity numbers, let alone solve the world's injustices. But still. Still.

I hope the Real Committee doesn't lose the brilliant Two Mice in the shuffle. Ruzzier's surreal landscapes, personable animal characters, elegant story arc, and profound theme combine into something truly award-worthy here. There's more to say (a mouse hole in the mice's house? double-yolk eggs? funny tongues!), but I'll shut up now and let you talk ... hope to see you in the comments.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
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This book was really cool. I like how colorful the illustrations are. It is a great children's book.

Posted : Dec 11, 2015 05:13

Shannon Houghton

This article articulately expresses so many of the feelings and thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain ever since I first picked up this book. I'm using it on my Teachers Who Game livestream next month as our anchor picture book text (Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 is our middle grade text), and I think it's magnificent. In addition to all the mathy goodness that always gets my blood pumping, I especially agree with you re: its delineation of theme. <3 <3 <3

Posted : Nov 20, 2015 05:20

Sam Juliano

It deserves the Medal or one of the Honors absolutely!

Posted : Nov 17, 2015 07:00

Sam Juliano

The book is unquestionably a masterpiece. Excellent post here.

Posted : Nov 17, 2015 06:59

Jonathan Hunt

This one is a top five book for me, too!

Posted : Nov 17, 2015 01:44

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