Mice, moles, rats and voles. Sometimes rabbits. For being so low on the food chain (and at times, oh so pesky) rodents have their fair stake in the literary canon. Across decades, children have been captivated by the tales of tiny, tailed creatures – as have adults.
Perhaps we love to see such timorous creatures act bravely, even boldly, within the pages of a book. If they can do it, couldn’t we?
Or maybe these animals are just the perfect foils for outstanding juxtaposition: reviled rodents as scholars, tiny critters living in a full-scale, human world.
When Rodents Rule
Redwall Series, by Brian Jacques
Be it Martin or Mariel, Mattimeo or Matthias, we all have our favorites. Brian Jacques has a series of 22 novels that span the life of the Redwall Abbey, complete with every harrowing war between woodland creature and vermin, every adventure to the majestic Salamandastron, every 3-page description of the delectable “vittles” whipped up by a fat friar cook. It should be noted that the early books in the series are vastly better written.
Notables: Jacques’ creation of animal dialects, the presence of female heroes (who has heard of such a thing?!), and the ever-joyous hares who captivate every reader. I’m not joking. Who doesn’t love a hare?
“Shake paws, count your claws
You steal mine, I’ll borrow yours.
Watch my whiskers, check both ears.
Robber foxes have no fears.”
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The odyssey of a small group of rabbits trying to find a new home, Adams creates a world where rabbits rule, war, and reproduce unbeknown to the evil Humans who try to trap them and destroy their homes. The character list is extensive, with different warrens possessing their own governemnts and rules. All hail Lord Frith, the sun god, and El-ahrairah, the protagonist in all bunny folklore.
Notables: Strong ties to The Aeneid and hero motif, but without the boring humans! A bummer point of view of females as passive, docile baby-makers. A kind of interesting display of rabbit mutilation through Blackavar – very edgy. A new rabbit language.
Quotables: “Men have always hated us.”
“No. They just destroyed the warren because we were in the way.”
“They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth.”
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
Join Mrs. Frisby as she strives to keep her family (including a baby mouse suffering from pneumonia) safe from the farmer’s plow with the help of the hyper-intelligent rats of NIMH, who conveniently live under the farmer’s rose bush. These rats, escapees of laboratory experiments, help her save her family while she assists them avoid detection from prowling scientists- and live happily ever after off the land in the nearby woods.
Notables: The pretty Newbery Award Medal on the cover. Could NIMH stand for National Institute for Mental Health? I think
maybe probably. Friendship, family, loyalty and bravery – all in one tiny field mouse.
Quotables: “You never had the injections. That meant that while he stayed young, you would grow older, and older, and finally die.”
“They were rats!”
Stuart Little, by E. B. White
A strange occurrence on the Upper East side – Mrs. Little gives birth to a mouse. While the details of this are glossed over (to say the least), E. B. White wrote an instant classic in Stuart Little, the tale of a mouse-boy living in New York. From the ingenious ways the Little family creates a home Stuart can live in, to his deep-seeded love for a bird named Margalo, to his undertakings of sailboat racing, invisible-car driving, and substitute teaching, Stuart lives enough adventure for us all.
Notables: Stuart can speak to humans, cats, birds — all creatures, in fact. He is a genius mouse! The inter-species relationship between bird and mouse. The fact that how such inter-species relationships are possible – and how Mrs. Little could actually produce a mouse for a child – is never explained.
Quotables: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.”
“At birth Stuart could have been sent by first class mail for three cents, but his parents preferred to keep him rather than send him away; and when, at the age of a month, he had gained only a third of an ounce, his mother was so worried she sent for the doctor.”
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage
This literary rat is not the well-spoken, mild-mannered Stuart Little equivalent. No, no, he is precocious, peppery and jaded – but not without romantic, glorious, lofty dreams. We venture into 60s-era Boston and into the lonely lives of outcasts: Firmin, the only literate rodent he knows, and Jerry Maggoon, the eccentric science-fiction writer who adopts Firmin as a pet. Who isn’t to say that, when it comes down to it, everyone needs a friend?
Notables: A novel ripe with literary references with which a reader can enjoy a sort of scavenger hunt. All the romantic feelings consuming poor Firmin, first for Norman, a bookstore owner, and then (perhaps more lustfully) for his various “Lovelies.” A time of fraught change in Beantown’s Scollay Square. Do books of higher literary quality actually taste better?
Quotables: “I have had a hard time facing up to the blank stupidity of an ordinary, unstoried life.”
“The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature, including mouse literature. I despise good-natured old Ratty in ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones.”
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
A four-part whirlwind of a novel, with mice, rats, pretty girls and less-than-pretty girls all desperate for different things… yet somehow all connected. Despereaux, the only literate mouse in the kingdom (surprise, surprise), is outcast and pitted against the evil rats, one of whom maybe isn’t so bad and has a thing for bright lights and shiny dresses. The less-than-pretty girl (who, let’s be honest, has had a major bummer of a life thus far) gets even uglier as she gets older (suffering from cauliflower ear, amongst other things) and, with the somewhat-evil rat, sabotages the pretty princess. You still with me?
Notables: A pyromaniac rat. A mouse who loves a girl (can mice not love other mice? Ever?). The narrator speaks to the reader, breaking down that “fourth-wall” in the process. A father who sells his daughter for a red tablecloth and cigarettes, a man who beats his young female servants about the ears, chopped-off tails and people dying left and right. So edgy for so young an audience. Wowee.
Quotables: “Kill ‘em, even if they’s already dead.”
“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.”
“There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.”
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
Decidedly slower than some more contemporary rodent reads, this early 20th century novel features Mole, Ratty, Toad, and Badger. Very creative…
Toad likes to try out different modes of transportation, and usually ends up in trouble. So much trouble, in fact, he gets sent to jail for twenty years, which is basically forever in toad time. He escapes, and gets into more trouble. I can’t imagine why Badger, Ratty, and Mole stay friends with this loser, but the four friends end up living happily ever after.
Notables: No humans seem to care that their cars are getting stolen and crashed by a toad. Less favorable creatures who Inhabit the Wild Woods, including weasels, stoats and foxes. As Ratty says, “Well, you can’t really trust them.” Perhaps Jacques from Redwall fame took a hint? Those stoats have got a bad rap.
Quotables: “After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”
“The Wild Wood is pretty well populated by now; with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent–I name no names. It takes all sorts to make a world.”
Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe
Since Bunnicula is told from the point of view of a dog, it hardly counts, but how could a befanged, vampire rabbit not count as a rodent who rules? Bunnicula likes his diet in liquid form, leaving a trail of white, juiceless veggies in his wake. Should the other household pets trust little Bunnicula? Or thwart (and kill!) him?
Notables: The question of Bunnicula’s penchant for human blood is never quite answered. There is such thing as a cat psychiatrist, who councils the cat out of his need to see Bunnicula dead.
Quotables: “As tears started running out of my eyes, I thought, what is wrong with my mouth?! It’s turning inside out!”
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett
Dark. Subversive. A Pied Piper-esque twist? Intelligent rats and a talking cat help a schemer named Keith, who swindles money from town to town as the Pied Piper who lures the “plagued rats and cat” away — for a price of course. But where is the morality lesson in that? Does the group change their ways when they come across a impoverished town, home to rat-catchers who use rats for sport.
Notables: The irony that super-intelligent rats live in hopes of one day achieving the utopia found in a children’s book called Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure. A super rat king created by the rat catchers by tying the tails of multiple rats together until they become of one mind and have power over others. What’s even more notable is that rat kings actually exist (minus the mind games). I’m serious. Look them up.
Quotables: “But now we can also say ‘what is a rat?’” he said. “And that means we’re more than that.”
The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary
A mouse with dreams too big for a knot in the wood paneling of a hotel room, Ralph sees a chance to grab life by the tail pipe and ride a toy motorcycle to victory. But it can’t be that easy, can it, Ralph? If it were, wouldn’t we all be riding motorcycles?
Notables: All it takes to get a motorcycle really chugging is “Pb-pb-b-b-b. Pb-pb-b-b-b.”
Quotables: “Ralph was a hero in the mousehole that night.”