The Mouse and His Child celebrates 50 years in print

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Russell Hoban classic The Mouse and His Child.

The young adult title, which Hoban considered his first novel, is the story of two clockwork mice, a father and son. When the key in the father's back is wound, he dances in a circle, swinging his son up and down. They begin their existence in the warmth of a toy shop at Christmas, surrounded by fellow windup toys whom the child thinks of as his family, but this idyll doesn't last long. The pair are thrown out with the rubbish and embark on a fantastic journey where they encounter a number of other anthropomorphic characters including the villainous Manny Rat, militant shrews, the professorial Muskrat, turtle philosopher C. Serpentina and a travelling theatre company of crows called The Caws of Art.

First published by Harper & Row in 1967 with illustrations by Hoban's then wife Lillian Hoban, the Guardian has called the book "both comforting and devastating" while Kirkus Reviews described it as "rich, disturbing, and very touching".

An animated version of the book was released in 1977, with Peter Ustinov among the voice actors, while the Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a well-received stage version in 2012-2013. 

An incomplete, fragmentary sequel, The Return of Manny Rat, emerged in the 1999 collection A Russell Hoban Omnibus.

September sees a special new edition released by Scholastic. The linked article says the edition features new illustrations by David Small. Whether this means new new illustrations added to the David Small edition which Scholastic originally issued in 2001 is not clear. At the time of publication neither Publishers' Weekly nor Scholastic have replied to requests to clarify this point.

"I still haven't finished with this novel"

Alida Allison, Professor Emerita of Children's Literature at San Diego State University, comments on the book: "Page One of The Mouse and His Child changed my life. I read it as a student in my first children’s literature class at San Diego State University in the early 1980s. I was so absorbed my nose literally touched the page. The toy shop, the child’s questions, the dolls’ house, the tramp - by the time I’d finished Chapter One, I’d decided to switch to a Literature major, went on to get a PhD, did my first interview with Russell Hoban in 1989, and assigned one or more of his books every semester for my own students over the next 26 years. 

"There is not another author with Hoban’s originality, brilliance, humour, and metaphysical depth.

"Why has the book remained in print for 50 years? For the four Hoban characteristics listed above, all of which permeate the pages of The Mouse and His Child. Truly, books one can ponder for decades are not everyone’s favourite reads, but even after more re-reads than I can count, I haven’t finished with this novel. Its plot and characters resonate with young readers, and its philosophical questions and occasional answers more than fulfill an adult’s desire to rethink the meaning of being alive. Whether figuring out the food chain war of the shrews, the oracles of the frog, the logic behind Muskrat’s Much-in-Little equations, the machinations of Manny Rat, or the epiphanies of the mouse and his child, Hoban’s vivid prose leads the reader through conundrums and quandaries, puns and punchlines, ups and downs, to interdependence and unlikely love.

"Such rare books are treasured by the readers with whom they connect. Thank you, Russ, and thanks to the publishers who keep this masterpiece alive."

In this video clip Russell Hoban demonstrates the original mouse and child toy which inspired the book. (Part of a longer video of a wide-ranging talk Hoban gave at San Diego State University in 1990 - courtesy Alida Allison)

"An unbreakable bond"

Mike Shuttleworth, Programme Manager for the Australian Children's Laureate, writes: "I met the late Russell Hoban in 1993 at the Perth Writers Festival, where I was on the programming committee. Before of an audience of several hundred people seated beneath spreading plane trees, the author produced from a small case the mouse and his child, wound them up, and we saw them dance and dance in a circle, the father lifting the child high in the air.

"The delight and astonishment that this moment, and which the book inspires, has never waned.

"I wish I could say why I feel so attached this novel. It is partly the unbreakable bond between parent and child. Maybe it’s the recasting of a certain kind of pastoral tale, with its echoes of Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Or the evocative black-and-white illustrations by Lillian Hoban, which so enrich the novel. But when I really come down to it, I think what I marvel at is the total bravura of the writing. There are allusions to art, history and religion. There is a noble quest, and jokes and puns. There is pathos and comedy entwined in a story driven by hope and fear and love. And there is the calm steady narrative voice guiding the reader through this unpredictable world.
"The life of the mouse and his child are as real as the trees we sat beneath that summer afternoon in Perth."

Associated titles
The Mouse and his Child