Sometimes at the end of the activity period I pick up a book and say to the kids: “Let’s see who our guest is today…” This time, before I could read them the title, someone said, “he doesn’t look much like a guest.” And that was how my young friends met a new literary friend—the Gruffalo Macmillan Children's Books, 2019. ISBN 9781509894130. , by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. What I was holding was the anniversary edition in a beautiful yellow binding. An excellent guest, I’d say, good-looking and interesting! But we had yet to discover the moral of the story.
A little mouse is strolling through the forest. He encounters one large rodent-lover after another. Each insists on having him over. Why?
Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.
What does the Fox’s gentle voice portend? The book’s authors use all the artistic tools at their disposal to teach us to recognize predatory intentions. Look at the Fox, barely peeking out of his hole. He seems to have fangs, and even his claws appear somehow longer. It’s not just ears that can perk up—the Fox’s entire muzzle is eager. That’s the sort of “nice guy” our little nut-loving friend comes across on his walk.
“Do you think the little mouse should go over to his house? For breakfast?” I ask, pausing in my reading. The oldest children, who were four, saw the danger and told their three-year-old friends that the Fox would eat the little mouse. “He can’t go to his house,” Bella concluded. Meanwhile, Vasilisa noticed the toadstools in the illustration. “That means danger!” she warned the little mouse, and pointed to the mushrooms’ bright hats, which the rodent had clearly failed to notice.
This is our first encounter with “expressive“ illustrations: a poisonous red mushroom, a worried red woodpecker—the mouse doesn’t see them, but the reader does. The illustrations convey more to us than the text does and we freeze in anxious expectation.
But the little mouse is resourceful. He announces that he has a meeting with the Gruffalo. He scares my listeners too—they sigh with relief when he says “There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.” They smile. “That was a good idea!” says Vasilisa. Good job, little mouse! His only defense against fangs and claws are “terrible jaws” and a bit of trickiness. Once he’s out of danger, our little hero continues on his way.
In the illustration we see him walking on a log. All is calm: there is the trickle of a quiet stream, the swaying of little bluebells, the hum of a dragonfly’s wings. There’s just that bird on a branch overhead, watching the mouse closely with its big round eyes. It’s the old Owl.
“Should the mouse go to lunch with the Owl?” I ask the kids. “His hollow is so warm and dry.” “No!” They answer as one. “He’ll eat him!” Meanwhile, our little mouse tells the old Owl about the Gruffalo, who has knobbly knees (the Owl has strong legs of its own) and a poisonous wart.
Each time the mouse mentions him, the Gruffalo acquires new terrifying descriptions. The Owl shoots off like an arrow and my brave little listeners are overjoyed at how the mouse was able to scare off all the invitation-givers. There’s just the hiss of the Snake in the white birch and lilypads, but we already know how it will all end: his menacing looks are nothing compared to that of the Gruffalo, and he definitely doesn’t have his black tongue or purple prickles. The Gruffalo is unrivaled here.
With each introduction he seems to get closer and closer!
Oh help! Oh no!
It’s a gruffalo!
The children laugh, breaking the tense silence.
When the Gruffalo suggests he’d taste good on a slice of bread, the little mouse is no longer afraid—he’s indignant! Who would dare make a meal of him? It’s time to take the Gruffalo on a little walk through the wood!
The children are getting better at guessing who they’re about to meet: “a hiss in the leaves,” “a hoot in the trees,” “feet on the path”—all these sounds are dead giveaways. What they don’t expect is the Gruffalo’s surprise.
The picture shows a thoughtful gruffalo and a proud little mouse. What is Snake so afraid of? Why is the Owl hiding in his hollow? Why does the Fox run away so fast? The Gruffalo is lost in thought, but the mouse knows—he’s the one who tricked the forest animals into thinking the Gruffalo would eat them.
“Why did that surprise the Gruffalo?” Eva asked. “He’s the one who scared them off.”
“Do you think the Gruffalo knows he’s scary? After all, he was born that way, and he probably had a mom that loved him very much,” I answer.
“You can be born that way?” Eva asks, surprised.
This question opens up another avenue of discussion for the book: individual differences—a good topic for older listeners, five- or six-year-olds. As for the younger kids, they learned to recognize signs of danger. “I’m the scariest animal in the wood—I’ll scare anyone away!”
And that was our visit from a brave little mouse.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Book cover image: panmacmillan.com
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