King Mouse – Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, Tundra Books, 2019
A hungry mouse searches in the grass and spies something shiny. “It was a tiny crown…It was a perfect fit.” Or was it? Cary Fagan’s witty and sweet fable, with delicate graphite and digitally colored images by Dena Seiferling, answers that question. Young readers will exult with the improbably small monarch; even a huge bear bows down to him.
Later, they will share the bear’s sadness at being left out of the picture. Finally, they will come to appreciate Henry IV’s frustrated realization that being king has marked disadvantages. Fagan deftly avoids moralizing; he suggests, in simple language which young children will understand, that privilege has its pitfalls and friends don’t care about hierarchies.
The first lesson the mouse learns is about the inauthenticity of animals who are drawn to his crown, not to him. They’re sycophants, the type anyone who has seen people fawning over young royals in British tabloids. “’A king at last!’, said the tortoise.” Apparently, he has spent his life waiting for an opportunity to gather seeds for someone wearing a crown. A fox gets the brilliant idea that monarchs don’t live by seeds alone, and decides that they must amuse the king by putting on a play. Seiferling’s picture of the mouse seated on a turtle watching the exaggerated drama conveys his loneliness. Even with his back to the reader, we know that this is not his idea of a good time. (image)
Then everyone starts finding crowns in the grass, and, before you know it, everyone is a king or queen. “’Long live me,’ sang the fox,” in a sharp statement of recognition about what happens when people with no motive but selfish gain get power. Adults will smile in recognition of this fact, but the book builds tension for children, who learn along with its characters why shiny headgear means nothing. When the mouse offers his friend the bear a wreath of dandelions, the logic of Fagan’s story becomes complete.
From beginning to end, he has contrasted the misleading appeal of the crowns to the natural beauty of flowers, a sunset, and a friend who likes you for who you are. The fact that the bear had reluctantly participated in the other animals’ toadying behavior just makes his final moment of self-awareness that much more meaningful. Children who have sometimes followed the leader will find validation of the wish to break away and be themselves. The quiet, almost Zen, subtlety of the book’s words and images helps children to understand the value of independence. Grown-ups, too.