The House That Mouse Built

THE TRUE STORY OF A MOUSE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR IT By Ana Cristina Herreros Illustrated by Violeta Lópiz Translated by Chloe Garcia Robert...


THE TRUE STORY OF A MOUSE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR IT
By Ana Cristina Herreros
Illustrated by Violeta Lópiz
Translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts

The title itself is a provocation: shifting like a holograph, arch to earnest, depending on the angle from which you look. For the first offering from Unruly, a new publishing imprint bent on expanding American readers’ sense of what picture books can be — and who is meant to read them — it feels appropriately mischievous.

“The True Story of a Mouse Who Never Asked for It” is an illustrated retelling of the Spanish folk tale “La Ratita Presumida,” the best-known version of which features a preening little mouse who aims too high in marrying a cat. In some versions she’s eaten for the error, in others she’s saved from her bridegroom’s jaws by the mouse who will become her new husband.

The folklorist Ana Cristina Herreros favors an earlier, Mallorcan version, without these finger-wagging elements. In her hands, the story’s sturdy heart is a female mouse who dares to make a snug home for herself alone. She then faces a succession of presumptuous suitors drawn to her ready-made house, animal swains depicted variously as folding chairs, paper fans and scissors — all objects that can be tucked tidily away, or made to extravagantly, even dangerously, take up space.

The text is as rhythmic and spare as the oldest fairy tales, its water-cool tone contrasting eerily with the mouse’s escalating peril. Playing off Herreros’s words (translated from the Spanish by Chloe Garcia Roberts), Violeta Lópiz’s illustrations are appealingly concrete, with a limited palette and the warm textural fuzz of construction paper. The connection between pictures and words is often elliptical, their marriage most effective when teased out across several pages — as when, after the mouse accepts the suit of a seemingly harmless kitten, the account of her wedding night and the alarming incidents that follow is accompanied by distortions. The mouse’s stretched reflection is projected onto the side of a steaming chrome kettle, her body is doubled by the water inside a curving vase. When the focus switches to her kitten-husband, fetching thread to sew up his injured bride, he’s depicted in silhouette, growing in size from kitten to beast and increasingly tangled in string.

The book opens with a note to readers, marking the imprint’s territory as the liminal zone not only between “picture book and avant-garde illustrated book,” but also between youth and adulthood. This is young adult literature’s slippery terrain, a space that invites argument as to what defines it. My favorite response — from Neal Shusterman, a Y.A. author whose books, like this one, interweave crushing catastrophe and startling resilience — is that to hold onto its Y.A. designation a book must hold fast to its sense of hope.

The coupling in “True Story” of a resourceful mouse and a monstrous cat does not end well. But neither does the fable end with that relationship’s demise. The retold tale is capped by a wordless coda that casts the story and its imagery in a new melancholy light, stripping away the pretense of its central metaphor. This lovely mini-narrative recontextualizes objects that were previously weaponized — open scissors as suitors, a net shopping bag that trapped the mouse’s feet — and re-envisions them as the landscape of a different life: one full of hope, in which the mouse may dream herself a better story.

Melissa Albert is the author of the Hazel Wood series and a former Y.A. lit blogger.

THE TRUE STORY OF A MOUSE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR IT
By Ana Cristina Herreros
Illustrated by Violeta Lópiz
Translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts
108 pp. Unruly/Enchanted Lion. $22.95.
(Ages 13 and up)

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