The Umbrella Mouse is Anna Fargher’s first children’s book. This epic adventure tells the tale of a young mouse kitten, Pip, on a quest to find somewhere to call home after her own dwelling is bombed in the London Blitz. The story in no way shies away from the atrocities of war from bombing, loss to concentration camps and torture, but the anthropomorphic style allows deep insight into life in wartime without the intensity of emotion that would be felt if the characters were human. This allows a greater accessibility to some horrific subjects for a younger or more sensitive audience. The diverse cast of animal characters represents the allied forces and their enemies, including a very British pigeon, a cockney search and rescue terrier, a German rat, an Italian mouse and an American eagle. The story was inspired by the memoir of a French spy called Marie-Madelaine Fourcade, entitled Noah’s Ark, who becomes a hedgehog in the story and leader of the French Resistance. The inclusion of strong female characters, including the plucky heroine, gives a balanced portrayal of the role women played in World War II.
One of the key strengths of this book is helping children learn to reserve judgment of others until they know a bit about them. Stereotypes are quashed and prejudices dispelled, as we learn that friends can actually be enemies and those with a reputation for cruelty can actually be the victims of cruelty themselves. Trust is a key theme and ultimately learning to trust your own judgement and instinct. Strength of character and spirit are valued above all else. What is particularly unique is the interplay between the animals and human characters who live alongside them. They don’t interact in a Doolittle manner, but rather in a realistic coexistence. The perspective of the animals, particularly from the altruistic mouse heroine’s viewpoint, makes the human experience all the more real and emotive for the reader.
The inclusion and mirroring of real places and events such as the Gignese Umbrella Museum, the Blitz, the D-Day landings and codebreaking in the lives of the animals offer a bounty of opportunities for discussion and historical links. War is in no way sentimentalised here and characters do perish but the page-turning adventure includes moments of real tenderness and leads towards a heart-warming resolution.
Sam Usher’s cover illustration is striking and makes this title stand out on the bookshelf. Peppered infrequently with black and white ink drawings throughout, his valued contribution offers the reader just enough of a glimpse of what these characters might look like but leaving much of the action to the imagination – to my mind just the way it should be.
The triumph over adversity theme gives hope that however bad a situation may seem and however many obstacles are put in your way, with courage and determination and friendship, you can find a way through.
This title features in our Year 4 Reading Gladiators challenge.
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