Why Are There So Many Mice in Children’s Literature?

Sitting in Sharples can bring with it any number of fears, but one of the dining hall’s most unpleasant uncertainties is that at any time a little creature may appear. Few people enjoy seeing mice or rats in person, particularly when they occupy the same space as your food. So why are the tiny rodents such beloved members of our media?

E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” is one of the most formative children’s books of the past few generations. Perhaps it is its success that has spearheaded the publications of more contemporary pieces like “The Tale of Desperaux,” “Geronimo Stilton,” and “The Underland Chronicles.” Now, Mickey Mouse is synonymous with the biggest children’s entertainment corporation in the world. But what is it about the mousiness of these characters that is appealing? Where is the same love for more conventional animals, say, rabbits? Or pigs or spiders, like in E.B. White’s other classic, “Charlotte’s Web?”

In the original text of “Stuart Little,” there’s never truly a clear explanation for our protagonist’s mouselike appearance; he is just somehow born that way. This Kafkaesque transformation, occurring not at the moment of adulthood but of innocent gestation, carries with it the possibility not of conformity but of difference. In the movie adaptation, Hollywood decides this is just a bit too unbelievable, so the Little family finds their new son in an orphanage instead in an “Annie”-esque plot. Regardless, the protagonist’s anthropomorphization is given no formal justification; he is simply a boy that is also a mouse. That leaves us with the question: why? Why did E.B. White make this choice, and why is it compelling?

There are a few obvious reasons for the mouse’s triumph. One of the charms of anthropomorphized mice is their undeniable cuteness — take Katharine Holabird’s “Angelina Ballerina” or Kevin Henkes’s “Chrysanthemum,” for example. Mice have small head-to-body ratios compared to other animals, a visual cue that we associate with infants. In fact, one of the clearest indications of a mouse’s cuteness comes from their size. Stuart Little is little, after all; Tom can always outwit Jerry by outmaneuvering him in small spaces; Beatrix Potter’s fieldmice sleep delicately in matchboxes.

In their littleness, mice are rather like children. Of course, the difference in size between an adult and a mouse is not the same as it is between an adult and a child. A mouse is unimaginably small. We cannot even comprehend how Stuart Little must have felt, looking up at his family from great distances and being whisked around so much faster than his own body could take him. And yet there is something resonant throughout childhood in feeling that minuscule. Being a child often felt like being Desperaux, a tiny soft thing with giant ears, taking in the big world all around.

In other words, the mouse can be seen as a symbol for the child. Children’s literature, then, utilizes this characterization almost as allegory to get at the truth of being young. For it isn’t only that mice are small and cute, but also that they are the ultimate misfits, often helpless at the hands of the giants around them. Children, too, are outcasts from the adult world.

Mice occupy a purgatorial space. They are beloved in the abstract, reviled in the flesh. As I sit in Sharples writing this article, I can feel nauseated at the mere suggestion of encountering a rodent at my feet at the same time I can smile thinking about Fievel from “American Tale.” Of course, these creatures go through some sort of transformation before becoming the protagonists we know and love. But a quality of disgust remains, a shiver at seeing Remy and his family in Chef Gusteau’s kitchen. These creatures have a touch of the unlovable to them; it is is Stuart Little’s difference from the people around him that drives the narrative. Ultimately, these are stories about the child as the Other — cute and sweet, but the Other nonetheless.

Rachel Lapides

Rachel Lapides is a sophomore from New York City studying English and Psychology. She loves plants and is slowly turning her dorm room into a garden.

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