Monday, February 8, 2010

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

I generally don’t follow all the pre-Caldecott buzz, but apparently there has never been less suspense than in January of 2010, when everyone and their mother’s librarian expected Jerry Pinkney to take home the medal for The Lion and the Mouse. The Caldecott Medal is awarded for a book’s illustrations. In fact, in the official Caldecott Terms and Criteria, the word author only appears once. Artist appears eight times.

And from first glance onward, it is easily apparent that Jerry Pinkney is an artist by anyone’s definition.

Readers will be able to move through the book quickly, but The Lion and the Mouse begs for an immediate reread. Right from the title page, where the mouse finds himself in paw prints larger than he is, readers will study the remarkable illustrations that reveal more details with each look.

Nearly wordless, the pictures are left to tell the story. Most readers will be familiar with the story already, and my guess is that children who encounter the story for the first time via this book will have an adult leading them through it.

But I wonder if a familiarity with the story is necessary for kids to understand the book independently. For example, kids will see the mouse climb on the lion and see that the lion has captured the Mouse, but why is the lion so mad, and why does he suddenly let the mouse go? More importantly, is it even necessary to know the mouse woke the lion up from a nap? Is the conversation about how someone so small could never help someone so big needed? Do readers need to hear the mouse plead his case?

Maybe the fact that the lion lets the mouse go is reason enough for the Mouse to free the Lion from the hunter’s trap. Maybe a simplified story – lion frees mouse, mouse repays debt – works just as well as the one with a moral about friendship.

2 comments:

Aaron Mead said...

The Lion and the Mouse is such a wonderful book. So glad it won the Caldecott.

I think the most striking thing about it for me is the space Pinkney opens up for a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional moral of Aesop’s fable. The traditional moral: “Little friends may prove great friends.” Traditionally, then, the story is meant to embolden the meek (“You may be a great friend one day!”) and to encourage the proud to look out for the little guy.

However, in Pinkney’s version, the moral is not so tightly constrained, largely because the only words Pinkney uses are onomatopoeias. This textually minimal approach lets the story breath in new ways, broadening the possibilities for the story’s moral. While the range of possibilities still includes the traditional moral, in my view the most obvious teaching of Pinkney’s version seems to be that mercy is a virtue. In other words, the moral of Pinkney’s version is that mercy is a good character trait that human beings ought to embody.

The central aspect of Pinkney’s version that shifts the book toward this interpretation is that since there is no dialogue, we do not get the lion laughing derisively when the mouse suggests that the lion may need her help one day. Rather, all we see is the lion letting the mouse go free, which looks more like an act of mercy than an act inspired by the lion’s arrogant amusement (as in the traditional telling). Moreover, as a result, the mouse’s liberating action looks less like mere payback and more like mercy as well.

Brian said...

Whew! Any more comments like this one, Aaron, and my readers will skip my reviews just to read the comments! Your insights are wonderful - thanks for sharing.

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