7 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: 13, rue Thérèse & The Tall Book of Make-Believe

The Tall Book of Make-Believe
by Jane Werner
Illustrated by Garth Williams

Well beyond the age it’s intended for, this collection of stories stayed with me. Published by Jane Werner in 1950, I can still recall the room where I read, and re-read, this book. The room, in the Los Angeles canyon house where we lived, was north facing and cool, a kind of oversize playroom where my sister and I slept, and where I can still see the narrow cover, on a pile of clothes on the floor of the closet.

My negligent housekeeping aside, from the start this book captured my imagination, perhaps because by the age of six or so I was able to read it alone, taking pleasure in the privacy of having the stories all my own to savor. If I came to an unknown word, I’d skip over it, or study the marvelous illustrations by Garth Williams, an artist whose style is both soft and exacting and which still summons the mood of that time.

Given that I was considered a willful child—parents today might use the term “confident” instead—I always managed to find trouble. That may have been why the story in this collection I read most obsessively was “Bad Mousie,” by Martha Ward Dudley (first published in 1947). It tells of a naughty mouse whose serial punishments fail to banish him from the house where he lives.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dannica, who lived with her mother and a little black mouse. Mousie was very bad because no one had ever taught him to be good.

Mousie spills his cocoa, unrolls yards of paper in the bathroom, and in his misguided curiosity cuts the bedspread into paper dolls. Dannica’s mother exacts harsh punishments on Mousie—hooking him to an umbrella and sending him off into the wind, mailing him off in parcel—but each time he comes back. Until one day, returning home he finally remembers to wipe his feet before coming inside. Conscientiousness, it seems, pays off. He’s allowed to stay and his bad habits change. Dannica

…helped him pick up his books and put the buttons and the crayons in the boxes.

Then she kissed him to help him get good faster.

As Lemony Snicket understood nearly three decades later, children thrill at reading about child-centered darkness and wicked behavior. Reams of stories extolling goodness can’t touch a story like “Bad Mousie,” and its portrayal of the unruly acts of an otherwise goodhearted creature, because the story expresses things a child at that age cannot.

Even so, a story like “Bad Mousie” would be difficult to publish now. Times change, and for contemporary sensibilities, the mother’s reactions are too harsh, too cruel to be read as they were originally intended. And yet, for those who grew up with this book, Dudley’s tale of the misbehaved, long-suffering mouse is memorable because of its harshness, which even a young reader knows, makes the forgiveness at the end well earned.

A wonderful remembrance of the book can be found here.

—Lauren Alwan