Review of the Day: A Mouse Called Junction
So we've covered Weird Ass Picture Books that were unjustly forgotten. So how about looking at one that deserves its forgotten status? Either that or it might be held up as a wonderful example of what NOT to do in a given picture book.
As a children's librarian there are certain perks that come with the job. Slowly and surely I have been rediscovering, reading, and reviewing those picture books I loved so dearly as a child. Lots of people do this. It's a kind of professional nostalgia we're allowed to indulge in. But sometimes one feels the urge to locate picture books that are even MORE interesting. In my case, I was speaking to my mother the other day and the subject of repugnant children's books came up. People are forever ascribing deeper disturbing meanings to titles like Robert Munsch's, "Love You Forever", or Marcus Pfister's, "Rainbow Fish", and not without reason. I myself cannot read, "The Giving Tree" without feeling a slight shudder run down my spine. As we spoke, my mom mentioned that when I was very young there was only one picture book I was ever given that she actually, physically, felt the need to throw into the garbage. In her own words, she didn't want to donate the book for fear that another child would accidentally read it. In terms of personal discovery, locating this book would be a way to delve into a book denied me as a child. So without further ado I hunted down, located, and found, "A Mouse Called Junction" by Julia Cunningham. Was my mother overreacting? Not a jot. Folks, as psychologically malevolent and twisted machinations go, "Junction" is one of those books that has passed out of human memory rightfully. I bring it to your attention now if only because it is perhaps one of the most fascinating trips I've ever taken into the world of, "What Was The Author Thinking???".
There once was a little boy mouse named Junction. He has everything he could possibly want in his life. Lots of food and a warm bed and toys. Just the same, Junction is unhappy. He wants more out of life than having his basic needs met. One night, he sneaks out of his house into the wide world. At first it's lots of fun. Sure, he meets a bird that warns him of the red-eyed rat that lives nearby. And a squirrel that gets him out of a spiderweb starts yammering on about an evil owl as well. Just the same, little Junction is completely startled when that self-same owl comes screetching down at him, out for blood. He's only saved through the intercession of the rat he was warned of before. The rat takes Junction into his home and the little mouse is so impressed that he pledges to be the rat's friend forever and ever and ever. Though he could have all the comforts in the world, it's the rat he really wants.
All right. From what I've told you now, can you guess what my mother found so deeply disturbing about this book? If you said, "It sounds like it was published as propaganda from NAMBLA", they you are right, sir! I mean, look at it. There's this cute little boy mouse who goes off into the world because he wants to find something "dangerous". This is directly from the text. Dangerous. All the other animals inform him that the most dangerous creature in the woods (aside from the owl) is the ugly rat. Small boy mouse meets ugly adult rat and instantly decides that this is the "friend" for him. "The two are like father and son, king and princeling". There's something about Cunningham's words that strike a warning chord in the heart of the casual reader. About the time the rat is taking the mouse on his shoulders to go, "Down, down, down until they halted at a hole so dank the mouse sneezed"... well you just can't help but want to call protective services.
Aside from reading too much (as some would accuse me of) into this tale, is this a good or a bad book? Well, let's look at the writing itself. It's... um... well it's doggone odd. It's hard to parse this kind of tale. There are a lot of very odd gaps in this puppy. First of all, consider the mouse's initial situation. He's the smallest of a large family and has lots of meals and toys and a nice warm home. When he leaves he's much like the protagonist in that old Grimm tale about the boy who left home to find out about the shivers. Only in the case of the mouse, the book says he'd never felt sad or scared, "Nor had he ever even hugged anyone, not knowing how". Come again? Okay, so maybe he isn't given much physical affection (warning... warning) but the fact that he leaves, "without leaving a note for his family", is still a little sad. In this book, however, it's viewed as a kind of freedom. Okaaaaaaay. Story aside, the prose in this tale is also odd. You feel disturbed long before the arrival of the red-eyed rat. And the mouse's abject stupidity (tell me that even the most coddled creature wouldn't run if an owl attacked it) doesn't make him any more likable. That said, let's look at the pictures.
I don't know if you happen to remember this, but in the early 1980s the world of children's literature was practically ruled hand-and-fist by one man: Michael Hague. Systematically this illustrator set about putting his pen to all the classics he could get his hands on. In my home alone I had the Michael Hague, "Wizard of Oz", "Reluctant Dragon", "Wind In the Willows", "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe", and "The Velveteen Rabbit". Influenced in large part by Arthur Rackham, once in a while the man would look away from whichever classic he had his eye one (I haven't even mentioned his "Peter Pan" or the sacrilegious "Peter Rabbit") and do something a little more low-key. In most cases, he chose wisely. Then he set his sights on this particularly disturbing little number. Somehow the cute Hagueian woodland animals that looked so sweet in "Velveteen Rabbit", have the opposite effect here. I loved his bird and squirrel. The fact that they keep telling the mouse that he is out too late and are meant to be ignored is an entirely different issue right there. The owl, oddly, is a bit small, but we can assume it's a screech owl perhaps. Then we get to the rat. Obviously Hague wasn't helping matters when he makes his rat wear a dirty trenchcoat and scarf. No, not a jot.
I explain the plot of this book to my husband and complain about its innate oddities. His response is very logical. "What do you think the author was trying to say?". A good question, that. I suspect that Cunningham was trying to make some statement about friendship and how it's better than all the creature comforts in the world. Usually when stories of this sort are written, though, a small creature goes out and befriends another creature of the same age. For a little boy mouse to hook up with a trench-coated adult male rat... well you can't tell me that isn't just a bit odd. I doubt "A Mouse Called Junction" shall ever find itself republished ever again. However, should you need a good psychologically twisted picture book for your senior thesis in children's literature, few titles go so far and creep one out quite as well Julia Cunninham's oddest little number.