Quick thinking saves the day

posted in: 2011, Chris Wormell | 2

As we read around Europe I’ll be making occasional brief trips back to the UK to review some of the latest releases in the anglo-saxon kidlit publishing world and today is such a day. One of my favourite books last year was One Smart Fish by Chris Wormell (which I reviewed here, and which later in the year deservedly won the Booktrust Early Years Award), so when I saw that Wormell had a new book out I was keen to get hold of a copy and see if he could follow up One Smart Fish with another gem in the form of Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice.

Photo: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden

One dark night a kindly bear thinks on his feet to save the life of six white mice hunted by an owl, a fox and a snake. As the mice curl themselves up into tight balls, Scruffy Bear convinces the predators that what he has at his feet are not mice, but rather snowballs, eggs or apples. At the last moment the hunters realise they’ve been tricked but by then Scruffy Bear and his new friends have made off and are safe and sound thanks to his quick thinking.

I’m sure some reviews will say that this book celebrates ingenuity, quick wittedness and courage, all characteristics we might wish to encourage in our kids as we read to them. But I’m afraid that this is not a book that has shot into my early-favourites-for-2011 list.

Scruffy Bear’s alternative descriptions of what the owl, fox and snake find on the ground just don’t work for me. I suppose they are meant to be clever but they lacked the kernel of believability that I think is necessary to carry the story forward.

Maybe this is a case of where an adult reaction to a book is very different to that which it might receive from a child. Indeed, M and J have both enjoyed this book a great deal and find Scruffy Bear’s white lies very funny indeed, but reading the book out loud I didn’t enjoy it to the same degree. In an ideal picture book I’m looking for something that my kids and I enjoy equally (even if for different reasons) and for this reason Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice didn’t thrill me the way One Smart Fish did.

Maybe I’m missing the point entirely and Scruffy Bear’s alternative explanation for the six furry balls at his feet are meant to be totally outrageous and unbelievable in order that we can enjoy laughing all the more at fooling the owl, fox and snake. But if the enemy turns out to be just plain stupid, rather than the protagonist actually clever, the story falls a little flat for me.

The illustrations are perfectly nice and Wormell can definitely draw beautiful animals but like the story, whilst the illustrations are fine and appeal to the children I didn’t fall in love with them or feel that thrill of excitement I did with the colours and details in Wormell’s last book.

Photo: discoodoni

Finally I think it would be amiss if I didn’t comment on the story’s pivotal plot device – the use of white lies. Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice could be used with kids M’s age and older to start an interesting discussion about whether lying can be ok in some circumstances. Whilst I generally don’t like stories which seem to have been written didactically about “right” and “wrong”, I nevertheless found it slightly odd that this picture book celebrates outrageous, if ultimately beneficial fibbing with no further comment on it.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I’ve been reading this book to my girls. From their laughter it’s clear they enjoy it and we have been able to talk about honesty and deception and when the former might not be the best policy and the latter something that is acceptable. All of this means that the book is definitely worth sharing with your kids, even if it didn’t quite meet my high hopes. It’s a good book, just not a great book.

The girls wanted to play out the story with their soft toys (and that surely says something about the book hitting the spot with at least these two kids) so we made a couple of white pom-poms to act as the curled up white mice.

We used these instructions from Kid Craft Central. Making the pom poms took a few days (in lots of short bursts) and quite a lot of patience. M was able to do everything herself, and J was able to help me by pulling the threads through the central hole.

Scruffy Bear’s deception starts to unravel after one of the mice fails to tuck in his tail – although Scruffy Bear comes up with another quick thinking response to explain away the pink “worm”, it’s at this point the penny starts to drop in the mind of the predators. M and J wanted their mice to have untucked tails so we added a pink pipecleaner (chenille stem) after having passed a length of wool between the two pieces of cardboard, tying together all the strands of wool.

Having acted out the story of Scruffy Bear the girls soon discovered it was a lot of fun to have an inside snowball fight (all our snow outside has melted now), and the pompoms worked brilliantly for this, being heavy enough to throw far and fast, but soft enough not to hurt anyone or do any damage.

Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice: ** (2 out of 3 stars)

Whilst preparing our pompom mice cum snowballs we listened to:

  • London band White Lies – not children’s music, but I like them!
  • Walking in the Forest by Gogo Bonkers
  • The Great Escape theme tune

  • Other activities which you could pair with Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice include:

  • Making a snake and a set of mice out of corks with inspiration from this post over at The Crafty Crow

  • Reading other books which bring up the issue of lying such as Would I ever lie to you? by Caralyn Buehner or books about animal camouflage such as I See Animals Hiding by Jim Arnosky or Discover Science: Animal Disguises by Belinda Weber

  • Creating a mouse puppet out of felted sweater, using this tutorial from Amber Dusick

  • Disclosure: I received my copy of Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice gratis from the publisher. This review, however, reflects my own and honest opinion.

    2 Responses

    1. Beth

      There’s a long tradition of trickster tales, which tend to involve deceit, so the fibs of the bear wouldn’t bother me in context.

      A similar issue is “Runaway Bunny”, which is all about a mother always finding her son no matter where he runs off to hide. But really, what is the boy doing running away? But the story is more about the emotional arc, not the actual plot, and in any case the bunny’s plans are too fantastical to emulate.

    2. Zoe

      Hi Beth,
      Ah – that’s good to know – about the wider context for this type of story. I guess this is just the first time that the use of fibs came up for us – maybe simply because M is now old enough to see the fibs, to know that we don’t normally encourage fibs and putting all that together to comment on it to me. Can you suggest another trickster tale picture book involving fibs we might enjoy here?

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