Once a Mouse

Cover

Written and Illustrated by Marcia Brown

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1961

Awards: Caldecott Medal

One day a hermit sat thinking about big and little. Suddenly, he saw a mouse about to be snatched up by a crow.

The plot in a nutshell: A mouse learns a lesson in humility

The hermit rescues the mouse from the attacking crow and takes it back to his hut, where he offers it food. Then a cat comes by, threatening the mouse again. This time, the hermit uses magic to change the mouse into a bigger cat. When he hears a dog barking nearby that night, he changes the cat into a big dog. Soon after, a tiger leaps on the dog and the hermit saves the day again by changing the dog into a handsome tiger. The tiger prances around the forest, showing off his superiority over the smaller animals. The hermit scolds him, pointing out that the tiger would still be a mouse without his help. The tiger is upset by this and plans to kill the hermit for saying he was once a mouse. The hermit knows the tiger’s thoughts and sends the ungrateful animal back into the forest as a mouse, then returns to contemplating big and little.

This book, based on an Indian folk tale from the Hitopadesa, brought author/illustrator Marcia Brown her second of three Caldecott Medals. The story is told in an interesting way, with many of the sentences spreading out over a few pages, so that you have to turn the page to see how the sentence turns out. The hermit is presented as a wise man who knows magic and is acting, throughout the book, out of kindness and a desire to help the smaller and weaker animal. When he steps in to caution the tiger, it is coming from the point of view of someone who is trying to save him from himself, which is something every parent can understand.

The hermit and the mouse are having good discussion over a cup of Starbucks.

The hermit and the mouse are having good discussion over a cup of Starbucks.

The artwork for this book was done in woodcut, with a minimal color palette that still manages to evoke a tremendous amount of emotion and movement in its characters. A great example of this can be found in the differences in the tiger’s expression from when he is prancing haughtily around the forest and when he is angrily plotting the hermit’s death. It seems like such a cumbersome medium for artwork, yet the pictures are delicate and evocative. At the end, when the hermit returns to his contemplation of big and little, it feels as though the experiences in this story changed the meaning of those words for him. This is a quick read that has great layers of depth and meaning.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that you can’t truly appreciate your success without remembering your roots and the people who helped you succeed.

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