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The Orphan and the Mouse: 12/13/22
The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman and David McPhail (Illustrations) (2014) is historical fiction inspired by Stuart Little, E.B. White (1945). Here it's about a widowed mouse and her unlikely friendship with an orphan living at a dubiously run orphanage.
Children's books are at their best when they state their intention upfront. A book can have multiple narrators and a long and winding plot but it needs to be established early in a way that isn't always necessary for adult novels. This novel doesn't do that and thus risks losing the reader's attention.
First and foremost, the title puts the orphan, Caro McKay first. Expectations are that she would be in the first scene. She isn't. Instead, it opens with the death of Zelinsky Mouse.
Then we're introduced to Mary Mouse, the widow, who takes on her husband's job as art thief. Along with her new job comes a long exploration of corruption in mouse society — something that feels more at home in the many cozy mysteries I read than here.
Children's literature can absolutely be written as a mystery, even a cozy mystery. The Bowser and Birdie books by Spencer Quinn are absolutely cozies for children. But they are focused on the mystery, instead of trying to be a classic children's novel and a mystery at the same time.
Besides the obvious corruption inside the mouse society, once Caro is introduced, there's a clear mystery surrounding her mother's death as well as current baby trafficking happening in the orphanage. That gives this book three distinct plot threads, in a book that's only 220 pages and written for an upper elementary aged audience.
Individually any of these plot threads are interesting and engaging. Together, though, they are a mess. The book jumps from scene to scene and point of view to point of view that it's difficult (even as an adult) to focus on any particular scene.