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 mouse-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."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.
At this moment, everyone went indoors for tea.
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.