The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail coverMeet the smallest mouse in the Buckingham Palace mews. Brought to the mews in a sewing basket when his mother died, the little mouse knows almost nothing about his origins. Even his name, Mouse Minor (if you can call that a name), was given by his classmates rather than his family. More than anything else, he wants to know where he’s come from.

His journey to answer the questions of his past begins days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when he’s accidentally caught in plain (human) sight wearing his school uniform. Though it’s true that a complex mouse society is constantly engaged in keeping the human world humming, human beings themselves are never to know. This essential rule of mousedom broken, Mouse Minor sets out to make his own way in London. A ride in a horse’s ear, a brief stint with the Yeomice of the Guard, and a botched kidnapping lead him at last to Queen Victoria herself, who really might know everything, and who suggests that the answers he’s seeking might be wrapped up in the biggest mouse secret of all.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail is an entertaining mystery adventure, but its real strengths lie in Peck’s use of language and his worldbuilding. Artful turns of phrase throughout are delightful for their own sake, while repeated phrases help to give flesh to Peck’s imagined mouse society. Mouse Minor serves as an able guide to his hidden mouse world, but the language does a lot, too, to communicate the traditions and assumptions that have grown up among this particular group of mice, as well as the shape of the relationship between mice and human beings. Highly recommended for language lovers, and those who enjoy a good mouse story.

Learn a bit about the prolific author behind the story, Richard Peck, or find other reviews from School Library Journal and Waking Brain Cells.

Sample the excellent audio version, narrated by Russ Bain.

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My Top Ten of 2013

One of the best parts of working on Lemon-Squash has been the excuse it provides to read. A lot. While I try to share all of the really good books I discover with you, there are a few that have stood out as particular favourites. If you know me in person, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already insisted that you read these. For those who don’t (and those who need a refresher), here are my top ten kids’ and YA reads from 2013.*

*These are titles I discovered and loved this year, not necessarily ones that were released in 2013. That said, at least a couple have sequels released this year or due to come out in 2014 that you should watch for, too.
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Jane, the Fox & Me written by Fanny Brit, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, and translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

Jane, the Fox and Me coverHélène is struggling with a dreary school life of no friends, teasing and poor self-image. Her current strategy for respite is in reading Jane Eyre and reflecting upon how, despite the great adversity she faces as she grows up, Jane remains resilient to the things that unfold in her life.

Much to her dismay, Hélène learns that her class will be spending four days together at an isolated nature camp in the woods. It’s bad enough to have to deal with rejection and teasing during school hours. Having to spend time away from home is something that Hélène certainly is not looking forward to.

While it is somewhat helpful to escape in reading, she is still not immune to the her classmates’ bullying at camp. She bunks with the other “outcasts,” but can’t break the ice. Just when the bleakness is starting to feel all-encompassing, she experiences a moment of connection with a fox. She is inches away from petting it when one of her bunk mates spooks it away.

Hélène is about to give up on hope entirely when a friendly face, Géraldine, comes to join the outcasts’ tent. Géraldine’s friendship helps break the spell placed upon Hélène, and a bit of colour starts filling Hélène’s life as she starts to see her life in a different way.

Simply put, a beautiful book. Arsenault’s use of gray tones, colours and various fonts captures the feelings that are represented within the words. The experience  and feelings of “not quite fitting in” and being unhappy with oneself are well addressed. Moreover, the book shines positive light on the one parent family dynamic of Hélène, her two brothers and their mother.

Read other reviews of Jane, the Fox and Me from the New York Times and Publishers Weekly.

Another blogger’s review of the novel at edge of seventeen.

Combating Bullying

Bullying Canada

Stop A Bully : Safe and Anonymous

Pink Shirt Day

20 Innovative Ways Schools Are Combating Bullying BullyingPrevention.com

Kids can play active role in combating bullying among peers, experts say Macleans magazine

Cyberbullying MediaSmarts

Do you have anti-bullying tactics that are working for your school/organization? Please share in the comments!

Ten: Lost Things

Another of the best known Arthur stories is the search for the Holy Grail. This week’s Ten highlights other stories which focus on the search for something lost.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Sometimes things get lost on purpose.
Ella lives in a town founded by the creator of the famous pangram, “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog.” When letters from the pangram start falling off the founder’s statue, the town leaders decide that any letter no longer appearing on the statue will also be removed from the town’s vocabulary. Continue reading

Ten: On a Mission

The legends of King Arthur’s knights are inseparable from the idea of questing: to slay or capture or rescue. In this week’s Ten, we share some other stories centred on a mission. The quests below vary from the weighty — a quest to save a life, or answer an important question — to the silly, and even the every day. The stories demonstrate that approaching a task as a mission can help to turn fear to determination, tedium to adventure, and entertainment to challenge. May we all do more questing!

Running out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Jessie’s quiet life in a frontier village takes a surreal turn when she is sent out alone to obtain medicine for local children dying of diphtheria, and finds that nearly everything she thought true about her life is an illusion. Continue reading

Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

The Seeing Stone coverArthur de Caldicot is surrounded by crossing places. There’s the year, 1199, which promises the mystery of a new century. There’s his home, perched on the border of England and Wales, and his family, which blends the traditions and sensibilities of both. There’s the death of Coeur de Lion, and the rise of King John. And there’s Arthur’s seeing stone, a gift from his mentor, Merlin, which give him glimpses into another life strangely parallel to his own.

This first book in Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy introduces the Arthurian legends through the eyes of a medieval teen convinced that knighthood is everything he wants. Short chapters alternate between detailed images of life in a medieval manor, and vivid scenes from King Arthur’s beginnings, from his strange conception to the much-contested drawing of the sword from the stone. Between the two, the later Arthur’s story moves almost imperceptibly forward. Though there is a central conflict and, ultimately, a kind of resolution, there is a sense that for the most part, the reader is trusted to draw meaning out everyday life. Arthur asks questions and makes choices, observes and discovers, worries and determines who he can and will trust. Having experienced all of this with Arthur, the reader is ready to recognise the full weight of the conclusion — and to reach eagerly for the next book.

I highly recommend The Seeing Stone for readers who enjoy historical fiction that provides a faithful window into another culture, and for those interested in the Middle Ages more generally. The series is also a great place to start developing a deeper sense of the Arthurian legends, as the short, memorable scenes provide plenty of entry points for understanding a more advanced work like Le Morte d’Arthur down the road without conflicting with those more traditional tellings.

Continue the series with At the Crossing Places and The King of the Middle March.

Read other reviews from Publishers Weekly and, from a writer’s point of view, Miss Reading.

Visit the author’s website to find out how his Arthur trilogy came to be, or head over to The Guardian for an interview with Crossley-Holland on the occasion of his Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

*Apologies for the delayed post!

Ten: Vying for the Throne

Arthur demonstrated his claim to the throne but pulling Excalibur from a rock. Others’ paths to a throne (or its equivalent) have been a little more complicated. This week’s Ten looks at how a variety of characters have approached the challenge of winning a place at the top, whether facing curses, usurpers, or strings of bizarre tests.

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix
Prince Khemri’s one of ten million princes responsible for keeping the Empire humming. Though his first experiences as an adult prince quickly teach him to moderate his opinion of himself, it turns out that Khemri is indeed a favourite of the Emperor, picked out as a top candidate for the throne. The job of proving himself the best suited of a galaxy full of princes raises questions, though, and leaves Khemri wondering whether the system he’s been raised to benefit from is really so great after all. Continue reading