The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Little, Brown, $16.99, 9780316013567/0316013560, 40 pp., ages 4-8, September 2009)
What are the golden eyes of the great lion staring at? The mouse, of course. But you must follow the lion's gaze around the spine to the back of the book to find her. If you remove the dust jacket, you'll see on the front cover the rebus that forms the title: a wordless rectangular pair of panels with a cropped portrait of the lion's face and the mouse perched atop the knot in a hanging rope, connected by an ampersand, with the author's name below. On the title page, the mouse fits inside the lion's paw print; an army of ants marches nearby, underscoring the vast difference in size between the book's two heroes. The illustration on the back cover, a tranquil picture of predator and prey side by side, takes its inspiration from Edward Hicks's The Peaceable Kingdom.
According to Jerry Pinkney, this book is about discovery, in part what readers discover as he transports them to the East African Serengeti--a land dominated by the grandeur of the Acacia trees, elephants and ostriches, wildebeest and zebras, lions and mice. But it's also about what Pinkney discovers in this multilayered story from ancient Greece. Without a word, using only the sounds of the Serengeti's inhabitants and his stunning pencil, watercolor and colored pencil illustrations on thick, creamy uncoated paper, Pinkney builds on his own retelling of "The Lion and the Mouse" in Aesop's Fables (2000). Here, he gives the mouse a motive for unwittingly scurrying onto the lion's back: the "who who whoooo" she hears under a full moon at daybreak. In three glorious spreads, the mouse awakens the lion ("GRRR"), who grabs her by the tail, examines the mouse in his giant paw and then sets her free. As the mouse returns to her nest of little ones, her tail forms an arced frame of the lion looking on from a distance; on the opposite page, the king of the plains trots off the stage to the right--but in the upper left corner of the illustration, the hunters' truck begins its trek to set a trap for the magnificent beast. Pinkney expertly balances the individual lives of his leading characters while maintaining a connection between the two and also moving the plot forward. Lifted high in a rope-mesh netting, the captured lion's open mouth unleashes a "RRROAARRRRR" that stretches across the following spread as four panels chart the mouse's journey to the lion. Next, a triptych of scenes shows the mouse removing a strategic knot from the netting, a tiny tuft of the lion's golden mane detectable in each scene. The freed lion looks deep into the eyes of the tiny mouse, as if to acknowledge the second chance at life that each has given the other. Compassion in one has inspired courage in the other. United with his mate and cubs, the lion carries on his back the mouse and her little ones as they stride across the Serengeti plains in the closing endpapers. This is bookmaking at its best.--Jennifer M. Brown