9.02.2008

The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires, illustrated by Claire A Nivola 64pp RL3


This the kind I loved as a child - a book that had creative female characters who lived and learned by their passion, whether it was writing, painting, dancing or fishing. I always loved a character with a sense of purpose and drive, and both Emily and Emmaline of The Mouse of Amherst have drive. Although this is a very short book with poems and line drawings scattered throughout, it is perfectly appropriate, one of the main characters being Emily Dickinson, author of 1, 789 short poems.

The reading level is high due to some of the vocabulary and the comprehensive ability needed to appreciate the poetry of Emily Dickinson that is woven into the plot of the story.

The other main character of the story, Emmaline, is a mouse who takes up residence in the Dickinson home. Her language is straightforward and practical, as befits the time period and the New England setting. Emmaline travels light and does not have much to unpack when she moves into her room behind the baseboards of Emily's room. For Emmaline, her stay at the Dickinson home will be one of self discovery and growth as she watches Emily craft her poetry and face joys and disappointments. We also get a brief sketch of Emily Dickinson's sister, Lavinia, who herself never married, and ran the Dickinson household which also included the sisters' mother and father.

Inspired by a scrap of a poem she has the chance to read, Emmaline begins to write her own poetry and share it with Emily. The two find they are kindred spirits, and the character of the mouse Emmaline serves perfectly as a surrogate for the poet Emily. The small life of Emmaline helps to illustrate the circumscribed life of Emily and illuminates her poetry at the same time.

The poems by Dickinson that are used in the book are accessible to children and the response poems that Emmaline writes are even more accesible. There are a few pages of historical information at the back of the book that readers will find very interesting, especially if they know nothing of Emily Dickinson and the kind of life led by middle class unmarried women in the 1800s. Honestly, this book probably will be of interest to girls only, same with the poetry and life of Emily Dickinson. However, this is no reason not to use this book to introduce the works of a great American Woman Poet to your children.

If your child likes this book, suggest Emily by Michael Bedard, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Although a picture book, the text is only slightly less than in The Mouse of Amherst, however, the fictionalized encounter between Emily Dickinson and a young neighbor is told with beautiful prose that echoes the poetry of Dickinson. And, as always, Barbara Cooney's illustrations are magnificent.


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