My love affair with Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse began about a year and a half ago, when my friend and former Alcott School colleague Gayle asked me for title suggestions to use with her fourth grade class’s project on animal characterization.Â I randomly and quickly scanned the library shelves for picturebooks that had animals with distinct and developed personalities, sent her an email list, and thought nothing more of it until a month or two later.
Gayle and I sat down to share coffee and breakfast that month or so later, and I had completely forgotten about the list of books I had sent her.Â But she hadn’t.Â She thanked me again for the list, and told me that she had immediately gone and purchased all of the books I had recommended (I gasped inwardly at that, remembering that it was a quickly assembled list), and that while all of the books were great, one stood out:Â Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse by Frank Asch and Devin Asch.Â Her class had loved it, and it had proved to be an excellent model for her creative writing exercise on creating memorable and unique characters.
Mr. Maxwell is a gentleman cat who has just received a promotion at work and decides to celebrate at lunch that day.Â Though each day he always eats the same lunchÂ menu item (baked mouse)Â at the same restaurant, Mr. Maxwell deviates on this day of his promotion and orders the live mouse instead.Â The mouse arrives at his table, delivered by Clyde the head waiter, “stretched out on a single slice of rye toast as if sunning itself on a sandy beach.”Â And the mouse proceeds to cleverly stall and manipulate Mr. Maxwell, distracting him with such comments as, “It’s very comforting to know that I’m serving such a courteous customer,” “I always thought that when it was my turn to be…ahem…eaten, I would be enjoyed with a fine glass of wine, ” and “I’ve heard that this year’s Beaujolais is exceptional, but shamefully overpriced.Â So I’d suggest one of the fine Rhine wines – anything between the years ’78 to ’85, but not the ’83.Â That year produced a very bitter crop of grapes.Â Unless you prefer a white wine with mouse – then almost any chardonnay will do.”
Ultimately, the mouse gets Mr. Maxwell to blindfold himself with his napkin, the better to kill the mouse with whom he has now become too well acquainted to kill openly.Â The mouse snags the tip of Mr. Maxwell’s swishing tail, guides it to the plate, and utters the countdown to the moment of knife killing mouse – but, you guessed it, Mr. Maxwell’s knife ends up cutting his own tail, not the mouse, and the mouse escapes.Â
I love, love, love this book.Â It’s a joy to read aloud, since you can create three great voices: Clyde the waiter, Mr. Maxwell, and the mouse; the words flow incredibly well; and the audience’s tension is palpable as the plot develops.Â Will the mouse die?Â Will he outwit Mr. Maxwell?Â The ending isn’t at all obvious as you read the story, and Asch and Asch masterfully build the suspense up to the climactic moment of knife striking flesh.Â Pictures and text weave together seamlessly, culminating in one wordless, tilted two-page spread that depicts the mayhem in the restaurant after Mr. Maxwell cuts his own tail (and the boys in the audience inevitably relish the bit of blood on Mr. Maxwell’s tail).Â And the final bit of text, a letter sent from the mouse to Mr. Maxwell in his hospital room, neatly and subtly finishes the tale offÂ in a satisfying, and reassuring (nobody got hurt, really) way.
If you don’t know this book, do find it and enjoy it.Â These are some of the best developed characters you’ll ever find in a picturebook, and their interaction with each other withstands multiple readings.Â And, unlike some of the books mentioned in my last post, Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse doesn’t hit you over the head with one single message.Â There are layers of meaning and interpretation here, as well as a story that just begs to be enjoyed as a story.