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Willem Lange’s ‘The White-Footed Mouse’ sets up camp

  • Willem Lange

    Willem Lange

  •  “The White-Footed Mouse” by Willem Lange celebrates the sunny innocence of youth.

    “The White-Footed Mouse” by Willem Lange celebrates the sunny innocence of youth.

  • Willem Lange
  •  “The White-Footed Mouse” by Willem Lange celebrates the sunny innocence of youth.

In the places where our children’s lives intersect with the animal kingdom, some amount of cognitive dissonance is surely inevitable. A pig is as likely to sing and dance in choreographed glee on the average kid’s television screen as it is to wind up in a lightly toasted bun on his dinner plate. Tales of jungle creatures can range from spine-chilling to side-splitting in their body of literature, and the most fearsome of creatures often have a place on their pillows, stuffed with synthetic fibers and smiling.

What’s shrewd and satisfying about Willem Lange’s new children’s book, The White-Footed Mouse, is that it brings a naturalist sensibility to a genre ruled by talking (singing, cooking, pratfalling) animals while ultimately preserving – even celebrating – the sunny innocence of youth.

Lange’s third collaboration with prolific Vermont artist Bert Dodson, The White-Footed Mouse tells the story of an 8-year-old boy on his first hunting trip with his endlessly kind and patient father, who has spent countless hours exposing his son to the wonders of nature.

“When I was little, he took me for walks in the fields and the woods, and showed me how to find the nests of meadowlarks, and killdeers, and bobolinks,” writes Lange, a weathered outdoorsman, columnist, commentator and public television host. “He taught me to swim and fish and paddle a canoe. We built birdhouses together and put them up on poles around our meadow.”

These idyllic musings set the scene for a story that is two parts realism and one part romanticism, laid out in the stark beauty of late fall. Dodson’s soft-focus, earthy illustrations fit the mood nicely.

After dark one November evening, father and son head to the mountains, shining a flashlight beam across the snow to find their little hunting cabin. Sitting by the woodstove eating crackers and cheese, they spy a mouse running across the rafters and curling up on the warm clay insulating the end of the stovepipe. The boy gives him a chunk of cheese, earning an admonition from his father: “Don’t feed him . . . I don’t want mice in the camp. I’ll set a trap for him tomorrow.”

The cuddly-looking rodent isn’t the only animal in danger the next day, as the pair head out on their hunting trip. This being a realist’s tale, the reader half expects to see the boy deal with his first kill. But Lange opts for a different reality: the hunters never spot a deer all day.

They do, however, spot the mouse again when they return to the cabin – and here is where Lange puts a mischievous twist on his down-to-earth tale.

However we may view them on the cuteness scale, we adults know that rodents have got to go. But for all its matter-of-factness, this is still a children’s book. And so they don’t have to go yet.

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