Mouse Bird Snake Wolf
David Almond and Dave McKean
Okay, it’s not comics, but it is Dave McKean, and it is a fascinating read, somewhere in the blurred lines between children’s illustrated fiction and adult philosophy. It will be classed as a children’s book, but the themes are universal, a folk-tale, a creation tale of ancient Gods and modern humans. Oh, if only we lived in a literate world where illustrations were as accepted in adult works as they are in children’s fictions.
As you’d expect, Dave McKean’s art just explodes from the pages, unusual shapes, expressive ideas captured so well and so easily. It is a wonderful, intriguing, visionary thing, a modern folk-tale done so right.
The old Gods, lazy and easily distracted, pompous and self-congratulatory, sleep in their heavens, ignorant to the world below. Having done most of the work, they’re slacking off, and the world is now full of gaps and holes; “there were places where there seemed to be nothing at all, places that were filled with emptiness. Some of these were huge as deserts; some were no bigger than a fingernail“.
And these spaces are noticed, not by the Gods themselves, but by those most likely to question, most likely to imagine new things. It’s Little Ben who notices first, how peculiar his world is, how many gaps and spaces there are. And with the imagination of a child he imagines a mouse, shaping it from thought and wool and petals and some nuts, becoming a god of creation himself. The Gods sleep on, unaware.
Seeing his success the older children Susan and Harry start creating for themselves. Susan makes “a birdy kind of thing“, whilst Harry makes a snake, slithering into existence from clay and stones. But this time a God is looking down, shaking her head, a warning not to carry on, but it’s a warning ignored, as Harry succumbs to creator’s pride, feeling all-powerful. McKean’s renditions subtly reflect character and creation; Little Ben just that little edgier, mouse-like, Sue just a little bit floaty and bird-like, and Harry, especially when conjuring forth his beast, serpentine and lithe.
Common sense tries to prevail after the snake comes slithering into being, in the form of Little Ben, who reckons it might be time to stop and reflect right now, but the more adult voices of the older children prevail and start work on their next creation, taken with the idea of becoming as Gods. This time it’s something bigger than before, hairier than before, with bigger and sharper teeth than before.
Seriously children, is a wolf really such a good idea?
Almond’s work, certainly in these three collaborations with McKean (previously The Savage and Slog’s Dad) always challenges a younger reader to think hard on the issues presented, and here is no exception. In fact, young and old will appreciate this folk-tale where the Gods are usurped and the creations become the creations and the children realise that making mistakes is all a part of growing up.
McKean’s beautiful and striking artwork is quite wonderful; striking where it needs to be, deceptively simple at other times, the Gods are corpulent, lethargic and a perfect contrast to the energetic, ablaze with potential children.
It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. Starting with comfort and contentment, the story gradually introduces elements of doubt, of pride, of rebellion, of independence, and as the pace accelerates to an end that is both powerful and unnerving, the children learn that some things cannot be completely undone, that their actions have consequences and sometimes those consequences are truly red in tooth, claw, and eye. Just like the previous collaborations Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf is powerful, imaginative, and dark stuff.