It was a night of moonlight and silver, when the grass stalks whispered quietly to each other in the Big Field and clouds like tall ships sailed across the sky.
That's the opening sentence of What the Mouse Found & Other Stories, a slim new volume from Charles de Lint, published by Subterranean Press. If you think it sounds like the start of a children's tale, be sure to pat yourself on the back for cleverness and insight—that's exactly what it is.
But with de Lint, you can usually count on stories within stories, and in this case, there's a wonderfully personal touch to the tales. De Lint's wife, the lovely and talented MaryAnn Harris, is an accomplished seamstress and toymaker, and these short stories were written by Charles to accompany some of the toys she made nieces, nephews and the children of friends. (Of special note here is niece Kmoré, who graces the cover in a classic frog-kissing pose.) All of the stories were written in the 1980s, back when de Lint was just finding his storyteller's voice, and about half were never before published; none have been collected until now.
De Lint notes in his introduction, "Kissing Frogs," the influence of A.A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame on these stories, a connection that is readily apparent. Here, toys come to life, the wind plays and spirits come down from trees, all to the delight of de Lint's young protagonists.
Photos of MaryAnn's creations accompany the text. So, when Sophie—who lives in the city but dreams in the Branching Wood—makes friends with Bunnypaws in "What the Mouse Found," you know the rabbit in this tale looks just like the flopsy toy that MaryAnn made and is pictured within. And when Christine shares a cookie with the hedge gnome Tomkin Furley in "Gnomin' in the Gloamin'," the wizened figure perched on a tree limb in another photo suits the story to a T. Oakey Bedokey comes to life in more ways than one, as does Maple Sugar, who only looks like a doll from one point of view.
"Tip & the Lion," the only story without an accompanying photo, provides a whole new mythology behind the zoology of ocean waves. For readers who purchase the deluxe limited edition of the book, there's a bonus tale, "The Songs of Timothy Tomtit."
The stories are very short, easy to digest and easily read aloud. Though brief, they are filled with the rich imagery and almost-alive characterizations that are to be expected in de Lint's writing. So don't be surprised if, while reading, you feel a light breeze tickle your feet, hear the crunch of leaves and far-off voices or smell, just at the edge of imagination, a fresh chocolate-chip cookie.
De Lint has released a whole library of books aimed at adults and young adults, but his kid-oriented work is more rare. What the Mouse Found & Other Stories is a treasure for parents and children's librarians—but also will find a happy home with anyone who holds a soft place in his or her heart for the wonders of childhood.
When you're touched by magic, nothing's ever quite the same again. What really makes me sad is all those people who never have the chance to know that touch. They're too busy, or they just don't hold with make-believe, so they shut the door without really knowing it was there to be opened in the first place.
— from "Tip & the Lion"
Green Man Review, 2008:
Ah—two of my favorite things, paired in one slim volume. (Sorry, I've always wanted to use the phrase "slim volume" somewhere.) Fairy tales and Charles de Lint. The postman dropped the package through the door this afternoon. Just a bit later, here I am at my computer. I couldn't not read it right away, could I?
Long-term, and even short-term, readers of Green Man will probably already have a pretty firm grasp on the general collective opinion of de Lint on these e-pages: luminous (if not numinous) language, life-changing messages, a complicated and wide-ranging mythology to draw from, spine-tingling darkness to deal with, an ultimately celebratory view of life, and, oh yes—a hell of a good story.
Here we have five short stories (six, if you've got the limited edition), three previously unpublished, all written for children that de Lint has loved and cherished enough to write a story for. All but one (my advance uncorrected proof did not include the limited edition 'The Songs of Timothy Tomtit', so I can't speak to that one) include a photograph of the doll that MaryAnn Harris, de Lint's artist wife, made and that each story is centered round.
Since I'm working off of an advanced uncorrected proof, I can't really speak to the physical book, but the small illustrations by de Lint are charming, as are the photos of sculptures by Harris. The fonts used here are not as clear as they could be for easy reading aloud, being somewhat antique/classic in nature.
In his introduction, de Lint is kind enough to provide an explanation of why fairy tales are so important for children to read and to have read to them. "Fairy tales," he writes, "prepare the reader for the world as it is, not how we'd like it to be, and offer some guideposts to take us through the worst of the real world's dark forests and lonely stretches of desolate lands." As he further explains, fairy tales also provide moral compass and an idea of the sorts of dangers the world has to offer in a way that allows us to prepare for them before we meet them.
Classically, the best fairy tales also provide a sort of if-then formula, which means that examination of the fairy tales of any given time provides a sort of snapshot of what that society finds valuable in its members. (This is true of most fiction, actually, which is what gives writers their power.) If I am friendly and generous to this gnome, the story 'Gnomin' in the Gloamin' seems to tell us, then my friendliness and generosity will be returned to me in ways I may not have expected. If I can accept and care for beings as and who they are, 'Oakey Bedokey' shows us, then they will find the freedom, life and joy of being exactly who they are, rather than what they are, and I will be able share that with them.
And perhaps in these modern times the most important functions of fairy tales and stories are to show us that the world is full of wonder, if only we will look, and that real stories and pretend stories can be the same thing, as 'Tip & the Lion' demonstrates beautifully.
Although de Lint is occasionally tagged with crossing the line into "preachy", that tendency works for him in the scope of the classic fairy tale, which always needs a moral summary of some sort, whether underlined or not.
As with all the best fairy tales, though, de Lint's lyrical storytelling, his unique and tapestried voice, and his understanding of what it is to be human means that this collection can be enjoyed just as much by the adult doing the reading as by the child who is being read to.