Thursday, September 21, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Church Mice Books

FINALLY! For some reason yesterday, Blogger wouldn't let me post this article with the pictures. But it's working now, and you can bask in all the glory that is Graham Oakley.

What do you get when you have 200 cute mice and a ginger-colored cat? The Church Mice will tell you. This series of a dozen-or-so picture books are just what anybody needs if they want a laugh, or are feeling just a bit like an Anglophile.

Here's the premise:
Arthur and Humphrey are the unofficial leaders of the church mice, a large brood that dwells in the vestry of the church in the small town of Wortlethorpe. In exchange for keeping the brasses on the vestry floor polished, the vicar gives the church mice food and protection. When they aren't on the job (that is to say, most of the time) they enjoy bossing around Samson the cat, who has listened to so many sermons on Christian charity that he was foresworn off all m
ouse-hunting. And, of course, they all have wacky adventures together.

Between all the books, they are lost in the desert, attacked by horrible rats, sent to the moon, and are abandoned on a desert island. They capture a burlgar disguised as Santa Claus, auction off Samson, kidnap the long-suffering Sampson back again, and drive off a mouse-hating, sitar-playing, hippie replacement vicar. (That last one's the plot of my favorite of the series, The Church Mice at Bay, pictured above.)

What really shines here, though are the double gifts of Graham Oakley -- first, he's a master at creating beautiful, finely detailed illustrations, as shown below:

This picture, from The Church Mice Spread Their Wings, is beautiful enough to make adults lose their breath for a moment, but funny and intricate enough to please the most die-hard Where's Waldo? fan. Can you find the mice playing "Ring Around the Rosies?" The mice falling asleep to a lecturer? The group of mice playing "ninepins" with little berries? I could stare at Oakley's adorable creatures all day long. But what makes it really sparkle is the accompanying text:

Humphrey the Schoolmouse had been reading again, and one pleasant afternoon in Wortlethorpe Churchyard he began to lecture his fellow church mice. "We have become Victims of the Rat Race," he told them, "crushed by the Pressures of Modern Life. Our nerves are being torn to shreds in the Mad Struggle for Survival."
At this moment, everyone went indoors for tea.
Oakley also loves to hide humorous details to his illustrations: you'll find funny inscriptions on the tombstones in the churchyard, goofy headlines in the newspapers, and a statue in Wortlethorpe Park memorializing a garden shed that once heroically burned to the ground. It's enough to genuinely amuse both kids and adults -- something kind of rare in this world, if you ask me.

Admittedly, the books are a little dated (there's many an illustration of people in bell-bottoms) but it isn't enough of a distraction to dim the enjoyment of these books. If you get a quiet afternoon to sit with these books side-by-side with a young reader, consider yourself in for a treat. They're something to explore together, to laugh about together, and fall in love with together. You won't be disappointed.

Full list of the titles in this series:
The Church Mouse
The Diary of a Church Mouse
The Church Mice Spread Their Wings
The Church Mice Take a Break
The Church Mice and the Moon
The Church Mice in Action
The Church Mice at Bay
The Church Cat Abroad
The Church Mice Adrift
Humphrey Wins the Lottery
The Church Mice at Christmas
The Church Mice and the Ring

You can probably find some of these at your local library, but I'd recommend looking for cheap used copies through Amazon or Amazon UK.


cloudscome said...

I must look for these. They sound delicious!

Blogger won't let me post a picture either. Yesterday none, today one but I have another post that absolutely must have a picture and it won't go in. BAH! What is up with Blogger???

renee said...

Oh! I have the Churchmice and the Ring. I love love love it! Thank you for bringing up this great series. Now, a-searching on Amazon I go...

dlkauf said...

Those are just wonderful books - my daughters and I used to examine the pictures in great detail - they are such classics - and they are hilarious. What I have recently discoverd to my dismay is that they are all out of print - every one - and the publisher tells me they don't have any plans to reprint them. I can not understand this at all. These are a hundred times more inventive than "Where's Waldo" - If they won't reprint them, they ought to put them on a DVD or something. I have recently ordered used copies of all but the last one - which seems to be almost nonexistant but someone should be reprinting these

Anonymous said...

These are really classic books, most of the libraries only have a few copies remaining!
If you do have a copy, treasure it!

matushkadonna said...

yes, they seem to have become collectibles-- I went searching for Church Mice on line and discovered a couple more had been added to the series since we got them for our kids, who are now grown, and I immediately wanted to order them-- but 85 POUNDS was the asking price for the apparently pretty rare "Church Mice Take a Break"

I think my favorites in the series are the CHurch Mice and the Moon, and the CHurch Mice at Christmas...

Anonymous said...

I love the churchmice books. The detail is great! Humphrey's pretentious aspirations to "poshness" always amuse.

limafox said...

what's the one where they catch a thief in the church and roll him up in the carpet?

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