Once, in a world pretty similar to our own, there lived three children: Harry Sue and Ben. It was a pretty good place to live, except for one little problem: the spaces. Because the Gods, after they started making this world, got kind of lazy and tired, and stopped creating things before all the spaces were filled in. They’ve been napping ever since.
But one day, Ben, out walking with Harry and Sue, looks into one of these spaces and pictures within it a creature that could fill the gap. A mouse.
“A mouse?” said Harry. “What on earth is a mouse?”
“I don’t quite know,” said Ben. He wrinkled his nose and scratched his. “It’s kind of a mousy thing, I suppose.”
Thinking hard about what a mouse might be, Ben gathers together some of the natural things around him – wool and petals and nuts – and makes them into a mousy shape, then wills it into being. It’s sweet and mousy, and runs off to do mousy things.
Seeing Ben’s success, Sue and Harry each look into a space and see what they could fill it with, while the Gods stir restlessly above them. And then they imagine a wolf. Ben really isn’t too sure about the wolf, but the older children are wrapped up in their newfound power over the world and determine to continue with their creation… What will happen when the wolf is willed into being? How will it change the world? And how will it change Harry and Sue?
Each time I read Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, I seem to get a little extra something from it. It’s beautifully produced, colorful and edgy; it’s something more than a picture book, something more than a story book. The layout of each page is different, using panels or full colour images, or a mix of the two. ‘Stylised’ is the word that comes to mind to describe Dave McKean’s drawings, many of the images being quite angular and sharp. I like how the Gods are all in black and white, making them somehow ‘other’, and I like how we are shown the imagined images of the world and the new creatures running through the children’s minds, developing from a blur into something with form that they then express in the physical world with leaves and twigs, sticks and stones.
What starts off as a shining and innocent world – I think the image on the first double page is my favourite, showing Harry, Sue and Ben balancing on the world, the plants growing around them, their roots extending down beneath their feet – becomes a little darker, page by page, as the children tamper with it. This is shown not only in the types of creature they create – from the essentially harmless mouse, to a bird, to the cunning snake and then the wolf – but also in the tools they use to bring these creatures to life. To make his mouse, Ben gathers together wool, petals and nuts, and then whispers it to life. The bird involves sticks, leaves, grass and a little more coaxing; the snake needs clay and stones, and actions to bring it into being.
The wolf takes all of these things, and two people howling and drumming their feet. The very act of bringing the wolf into life requires Harry and Sue to change their behavior and once it is done, once the wolf has been imagined once, it will be there forever within them:
“Now their wolf was inside them, like a dream. They felt it, running through them. They heard it, howling and snarling deep inside them.”
This is not a light and fluffy fairytale. In fact, the night after I read Mouse Bird Snake Wolf for the first time, I dreamt about being chased by wolves; I had to barricade myself indoors to try and escape them. The drawings of the wolf once he comes to life are really quite scary – and this is a thirty-plus-year-old talking. What starts off as a seemingly innocent creation tale soon becomes something darker: the wolf is waiting in the wings.
Masterful, thought provoking, a book that is a little bit special.