Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mouse House: A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole

With a tip of his hat to Robert Lawson and his classic Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos, illustrious illustrator Henry Cole's first novel, A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of another mouse who, befriended by a famous person, becomes closely involved in history.

It is 1821, and Celeste, an independent young mouse, lives beneath the floorboards of Oakley Plantation in Louisiana. Happy among her artisanal paw-crafted baskets, Celeste has only two concerns: Illiana and Trixie, cantankerous rats who order her to forage in the upstairs dining room floor for their treats, and Miss Eliza's cat, Puss, who snoozes fitfully as she guards that domain against rodent incursions. On one unwanted foray, Celeste hears the master of the house welcoming two visitors, Monsieur John James Audubon, hired to tutor young Eliza in art and dance, and his thirteen-year-old apprentice Joseph, an art student who is to do the backgrounds for the bird portraits Audubon plans to complete while at Oakley.

But Celeste's food-gathering mission is interrupted by Puss, who chases her upstairs, where the little mouse scoots under a closed door and finds refuge in a boot pushed far under a cot in the small bedroom. That boot turns out to belong to young Joseph, who is lonely and adopts the little field mouse as his pet, carrying her about in his shirt pocket and letting her watch as he struggles with his art assignments. Then one day Celeste is appalled to see the determined Audubon killing a bird to use as his model, directing Joseph to pin it to a board in a lifelike pose for the portrait he is painting. And when a young wood thrush named Cornelius is captured and stuffed into a small cage, Celeste is sure the friendly bird will meet the same fate unless she can intervene. Later, when she hears Cornelius warble his thanks for her gift of a sprig of dogwood berries, she has an inspiration:

"Do that for Joseph!" she says. "Sing just like that. Promise me."

Celeste coaches Cornelius in just how to sing and strike live poses to please the two artists, and his life is spared until Celeste is able to help him escape. And when Lafayette, an osprey who rescued and flew Celeste home when she was lost in the woods, is captured, Celeste teaches him how to model for Audubon and saves his life as well. Lafayette is quite a character, returning the favor by managing to rid the plantation house of the disagreeable Trixie, who orders him to take her for a flight in the woven basket gondola Celeste designs. As the bossy rat enjoys the scenery, Lafayette pays his debt during the tour by dropping her off "accidentally" for an extended holiday.

"Oh, Holy Crawdad," says Lafayette. "I'm afraid Miss Trixie won't be coming back."

Henry Cole, whose notable illustrations have enlivened many a picture book, rises to a new level with soft, pencil drawings which become the heart of his first novel. Cole's work, subtle yet evocative, flows seamlessly from page to page, changing focus and perspective, now taking in the whole plantation house from above, now focusing in on Celeste's tiny artisan's paws, and supports his graceful storytelling elegantly. Celeste is a wonderful little heroine, a mouse who inspires art and friendship while dodging a determined mouser and who, with the help of her feathered friends, finds her own perfect attic refuge at last. Cole has given elementary readers memorable illustrations and a wonderful cast of characters headed by a mouse who can stand tall with such company as Stuart Little and Despereaux.

As the writer for Kirkus Reviews says, this book is "a rare gift: a novel with artwork as whole and vital as a picture book's."

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  • Sounds wonderful! Especially for families like mine who are "in between" picture books and novels with their kids (hopefully we won't ever be "leaving" piciture books, but I know my eldest is definitely enjoying longer narratives). Going to add this to my wish list.

    By Blogger Playing by the book, at 1:10 AM  

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