My niece is an artist, quilter, lampmaker, chef, baker, holiday planner, and budding author. I bring her to the conversation because she illustrates children’s books and has developed several ideas for books that sound pretty engaging to me. Over the years, I have intended to come up with a charming tale that suits her particular ouvre (as illustrated at the top of this article), but, as my loyals readers know, I’m lousy when it comes to fleshing out a narrative.
However, I have vowed to take on every genre, one-at-a-time, and so, with no expectation of producing anything worth while, here goes my tentative foray into Children’s Literature, the body of which follows a slight excursion to the local bookshop and some fluffle about the genre and books that end up in bookstores.
I like bookstores, for the most part, although I am easily overwhelmed by he volume of books published, and, to be honest, regretful that mine are not. Nonetheless, I wander, picking up the most egregiously awful potboilers, reading the first paragraph out loud and planning my suicide. Not true. Not quite.
There was once some relief in heading to the children’s section, where old favorites still lay in profusion. Babar still trumpeted mightily, Tin Tin still took on the odd gang of middle European mobsters, Charlotte still spun a web. Ah, but today! Today the racks of children’s books fill room after room, many of the books unlovely, and, I presume, unread. I don’t like to point to any particular series as most objectionable, but the trailer for Captain Underpants :The First Epic Movie has just been released. I’m just saying.
I started school in the “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” era, but there were other early books that live in memory as well. I have some tucked away, and I think my brother has his copy of Bobby Had A Nickel, an otherwise entirely forgettable narrative, except that it touched upon a dilemma with which I struggled at the time. Bobby’s problem, and mine, was that there were so many ways to spend discretionary income, in Bobby’s case, a nickel. Bobby considers one enticing purchase after another, finally settling on a surprising choice.
Fortunately, I have been able to find the text, thus finding relief from a brain sapping set of couplets that I absolutely knew to be wrong.
Bobby had a nickel
(A nickel) all his own
Should he buy a penguin
or an ice cream cone?
I don’t know where the penguin came from, but try to wedge that one from the mind once it has settled in. In fact, Bobby considered some candy or an ice cream cone, much less exciting in my view. By the way, that copy of Bobby Had A Nickel goes for about $50.00 on the open market, so if you own it, treat it gently.
Oh, yeah. Spoiler Alert! He spends the nickel in order to ride on a carousel. I’d much rather have a penguin.
Times change, but the dreadful implications of making a choice that excludes other choices (what economists call opportunity cost) remains in the mind of any child. So, herewith, my attempt at writing a book for children:
Lazlo had a Euro
Five Rubles and a buck
Globalization had ended
So he was out of luck
Should be go with Paypal
Dwolla, or maybe Stripe
Or maybe crypto coins
Of any shape or type………
This is going nowhere and has nothing for the fabulous family illustrator to illustrate, so – changing gears, and with an apology to real authors of books for children, here is my attempt at the sort of book I might have enjoyed in 7th or 8th grade, slightly creepy but short of shocking. You know, kids’ stuff:
Deep in the Carpathian Alps, the castle Alucard stood grey and grim, its rocky parapets seemingly inviting castle guests (although there were rarely guests at this castle) to take a final look at the majestic snow covered peaks above the castle and the roaring river below before stepping out into infinity.
The Count Alucard, a mouse of indeterminate age, as you will see, dressed in fussy finery each evening in a superbly tailored tailcoat with scarlet sash from shoulder to the hem of the jacket. By day? Well, the Count was not seen in daylight.
In the village, when ordinary townsmice spoke of the castle and the Count, ah, but then, they did not speak of either, not out loud. Children learned to speak of “that place” , and, of course, none dared climb the long trail to knock at the castle’s door.
An odd aspect of the town below was that the walls of the villagers’ homes were strung with wreaths of garlic and long strands of vervain, their slender stalks bearing small pale lilac flowers. The vervain smelled lovely; the garlic not so much.
From an early age children of the village were taught to look carefully when opening a door, never inviting anyone in who was not already known to them. Mice new to town were invited to visit the Mayor’s office, a long room lined with mirrors. Visitors unwilling to walk before the mirrors were not welcome and were quickly ushered to the train station and whisked away.
Some important facts can be left unsaid, and in this village there was no doubt that great danger lay at the top of the rocky crag above the river. As the years had gone by, villagers had disappeared into the night on a regular basis; once or twice a month. Usually villagers in their teens, those brave enough, or foolish enough, to leave their homes after dark. The lights in the castle burned brighter on nights such as these. No one talked of climbing up to find their friends, but a few brave souls thought they might give it a try, if any others would be willing to come along.
None were. So far.
Heironymouse B. Whisklett, a rather small and somewhat anxious mouse, had lived in the village all his life, daring little, certainly never daring to hike the trail to Alucard’s Castle, but for reasons that operate in stories such as these, on this afternoon, when the sky was uncommonly blue, the hills uncommonly green, the sun uncommonly warm, he couldn’t help but think what a pleasant climb it would be and how he could spin a fine tale of adventure to a crowd as they huddled in the warm parlor of the village inn. He rarely spoke, and when he did, the townsmice rarely listened. A real adventure, he thought, might be well worth talking about and listening to. He packed a small bag with water, several small apples, a few tawny cranberry biscuits, a slab of ripe cheese, and a piece of Muckleberry pie for the hike, adding a clove of garlic at the last moment, just as a precaution, and set out on his journey.
As he started out on the little used trail, he passed an old cottage, covered with vines, the windows shuttered. An older person, perhaps male, perhaps female, sat on the front stoop. Heironymouse raised his hand in respectful salute as he strode by, but the figure stood quickly and blocked his way.
Now he could see that she wore a long black apron and a wide brimmed soft black hat. “Good morning, Heironymouse,” she said with a rattle in her voice. “I see you mean to take he path to the castle.” She spoke of the castle without flinching, pointing to it without taking her eyes off Heironymouse. “It’s a long climb. Surely you’ve brought something with you to nibble on as you start your trip? Something an old woman might like on a fine afternoon?”
Heironymouse nodded and opened his pack, rifling through his belongings, pulling out the apples, biscuits, cheese, and pie. “You are welcome to anything I have,” he said, pointing to the pile of food he had laid on the table. “I brought some garlic as well,” he said, as he pulled the clove from the bottom of the bag, “but I’d rather keep that as I my need it when I get close to the castle.”
“Close to the castle,” She picked up the Muckleberry pie and shook her head. “You won’t be needing garlic today.” She shoved almost the entire piece of pie in what Heironymouse took to be a toothless mouth, and pointed to a small sack at her feet.
“Mufflleesnufflemubblebung”, she said, or something like it, leaving Heironymouse much confused. After a moment, the pie was finished and she continued. “Everything you need is in my sack,” she continued as she dusted off the crumbs that had landed on her apron. “You have three acorns in the bag. The first is white. You must throw that one on the ground that when you near the castle. Any who would stop you from reaching the castle will trouble you no more. The second is red. drop that when the Count invites you to dine at his table. Do not let him see you. Then feast if you will; you will find his meal delightful. The third is black. You must drop that when you step out upon the castle walls.” She paused and looked sternly at him. “This is most important. No matter how frightened you are, you must say, “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.” Can you remember that?
The woman looked at Heironymouse closely, as if she could find something in his face. “You may be the one,” she said, “or maybe not.”. And she reached out to grab the ripe cheese. “Now, on your way.”
Simple enough, Heironymouse thought, and he pushed the sack into his pack and left the woman both cranberry biscuits. He waved his thanks and farewell and began the long hike to the castle gates. The sun was shining happily as he began, and a soft wind cooled him as he climbed. As the trail grew steeper, however, the sky grew darker and the winds picked up. Soon he was hunched over, his collar turned up against the cold, as he moved slowly toward the castle he could now see above him. Each step was more arduous; the wind had picked him up at thrown him sideways at times. Merry sunshine and clear sky were but a memory. Night was falling.
As he neared the crest, Heironymouse heard the shrill caw of dark birds that flew in wobbling circles above the castle’s walls. Being a mouse of very little height and heft, Heironymouse was aware that he would make less than a beakful should the birds spot him. At the same moment, he heard the spit and rasp of a large cat, now barely visible in the path ahead. He had hardly begun to absorb the danger before him, when he saw the grass a few feet from him rustle and heard a low hiss.
Grabbing at his pack, Heironymouse found the white acorn, threw it on the hard ground before him and said, “Hope this works.”
The winds dropped, the clouds cleared, the grass grew still, the cat vanished from view, and the sky was empty of cawing black birds. Looking about him and seeing no danger, Heironymouse continued his ascent, reaching the walls of the castle quickly. Expecting all to be on a grand scale, he was surprised to find that the wide wooden door was no taller than the door in his own cozy house. Still, the castle was huge, the walls so tall that he could not see their tops.
Summoning courage he had not thought he had, Heironymouse tapped on the dark door. No response. He knocked more firmly. Nothing. With the spirit of adventure rising in him, he made a fist and pounded on the door so loudly, he could hear the echo resounding from within.
The door flew open. Before him stood a weasel of approximately his size. Heironymouse thought he had never seen anyone or anything so striking. Her dark fur shone and her sharp teeth glistened in torchlight as she spoke. She wore a maid’s apron and cap and stood glaring at him in the doorway.
“No need to pound the door,” she said, pointing to a doorbell next to the door frame. The bell rings loudly enough to wake us, and I certainly don’t need to feel the entire castle shake.” She peered at him closely. “I know you, don’t I? Whisklet? What business do you have here?”
Wondering how a weasel, a very attractive weasel, would know him, Heironymouse began to offer a halting description of his decision to strike out on the adventure, when she waved him silent. “It doesn’t matter. It never does. Hope you like pigs.” She turned her back and slithered into the hallway, indicating to Heironymouse that he should follow. She left him in a large empty room. The wall nearest him was filled with books, floor to ceiling. At the far end of the room was an enormous fireplace, easily the size of the entire village inn. Heironymouse walked to the bookcase and scanned the books on the shelves. Most were in languages he did not recognize, but some had titles he could read.
The First Five Centuries Are The Toughest
What To Do When The Villagers Attack
Life After Life
Don’t Drain Them All At Once: A Guide To Village Maintenance
Good Help Is Hard To Find: The Makeover Method Of Staffing A Castle
“Good evening and welcome,” a deep voice startled Heironymouse causing him to jump back from the shelves of books. “I see you have found my library. Please, feel free to borrow any books that interest you.”
A tall, slim mouse dressed in black evening clothes with a red sash across his chest approached Heironymouse and extended his hand. “Count Alucard, perhaps we have met before. I apologize if I have failed to recognize you.”
Finding it difficult to speak, Heironymouse shook the extended hand, pointed to his chest, and said simply, “I climbed to see the castle.”
“And see it you shall,” said the Count, clapping Heironymouse on the back. “You’ve saved me a trip, you know. I was heading to the village tonight, but your visit will allow me to do my business without having to leave the castle.” He turned toward the fire blazing in the enormous fireplace . “It’s become quite chilly this evening. I’ve just had Electra set the fire. What do you say to a spot of dinner before we take the tour? I’m quite peckish. Would you care to join me?”
Nodding his agreement, Heironymouse followed the Count from the huge room to a smaller chamber, elaborately decorated in red and gold. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling above a long table covered in crisp white linen. The table groaned under the weight of platters heaped with artfully prepared food. Acorn squash, browned and buttered filled one platter, long spicy noodles another, something like pizza but long and round steamed as strings of cheese melted on its plate. Cascading heaps of fresh fruit, compotes, soups, all ready for the diners to sit at the table and tuck in.
At each corner of the table a miniature pig dressed in red tailcoat and breeches and wearing a powdered wig stood silently waiting to serve them. They were pigs, Heironymouse felt, but not quite Their snouts were not as sharply square as they ought to have been, and each had traces of whisker and a long straight tale rather than the kinky tale a pig should have. Hironymouse guessed mice had been in some fashion transformed into pigs. One of them looked nervously at Heironymouse, silently imploring him to look more closely. For a moment Heironymouse thought he recognized Cammy D’Arte, a friend who had gone missing months ago. The thought did not entirely vanish; Heironymouse remained uneasy. He was hungry; it had been hours since he had eaten but one of the cranberry biscuits. His stomach groaned, his mouth watered, but this too grand feast ought not be presented to an unexpected and unexceptional mouse from the village.
Something was most definitely not quite right about the situation.
“I had a biscuit on the way up,” Heironymouse began, “I’m not all that ….”
The Count turned toward Heironymouse, drawing the small mouse’s eyes into his steady gaze. It seemed the Count’s pupils were spinning, spiraling down, deeper and deeper. Heironymouse felt heavy and heavier, as if lead overcoats were draped upon him, one after another.
“I’m sure you are hungry,” the Count spoke softly. “In fact, you are starving. The only thing you want right now is to sit at this table and eat all that you can.”
“All I want to do is sit at this table and eat all I can,” Heironymouse whispered.
The Count showed him to his seat, turned to instruct the pigs in the order in which the dishes were to be served, and excused himself for a moment. As he walked from the room, Heironymouse free of the Count’s power remembered the red acorn, which he pulled from his pack and dropped on the floor in front of his chair. In an instant Heironymouse felt both completely safe and genuinely hungry. He reached for the platter of noodles, slurping loudly while the small pigs looked on sadly. He then picked up the round pizza dripping cheese. He had never tasted anything so richly satisfying in all his life. Plate after plate slid across the table, the pigs helping now and shaking their heads in amazement. The Count returned carrying a coat and breeches and white wig, obviously expecting that he would find an entirely changed guest at the table rather than the unassuming mouse, dabbing his whiskers with a well used napkin.
“Thank you,” Heironymouse belched, unable to hide his pleasure in the meal. The pigs waited anxiously at attention, but the Count merely smiled and said, “I think the time has come for you to see the castle now, from the bottom to the top.” He waved the servants away and took Heironymouse’s elbow. “I think you’ll find the view from the tower fascinating.”
They walked through great halls and grand rooms, past a row of portraits that Heironymouse at first took to be a gallery of the Count’s ancestors. A closer look, however, convinced him that each portrait was of the Count, the first in a Florentine villa, then at the Court of Elizabeth I, at Oxford, next to Washington and Jefferson, with Buffalo Bill Cody, at Harvard, in front of Castle Alucard.
“You have a striking resemblance to others in your family,” Heironymouse suggested with a wry smile. “Ah, yes,” the Count returned, “We all share the same blood.”
As they walked from one gilded room to the next, Heironymouse repeated the words he knew he must day: “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.” It made no sense to him, but the old woman’s advice had been helpful thus far, and he was in no position to start doubting her as he walked alone with the Count.
“Please, watch your step.” the Count opened a doorway revealing a long and twisting flight of stone steps. They coiled up and out of sight. “After you,” the Count insisted handing the mouse a torch, and Heironymouse began the long ascent. Whereas the rest of the castle had been lavishly furnished and its stone walls softened by tapestries and paintings, this stretch offered only bare stone, occasionally marred by scratches that could only have been made by hands resisting the climb.
Heironymouse was puffing softly as he glimpsed a view of moonlight at the top of the stairwell. The air above was fresh and cold; he shivered as he burst into the open space at the top of the stairway. The walls of the tower were irregular; high barriers stood next to crumbled remnants of fortification. For the first time, Heironymouse wondered how long the Count and the castle had loomed over his village.
“Do you like the view?” The Count’s voice was low; he stood almost touching Heironymouse’s back. “I do so hope it is pleasing to you.” He brushed by the shivering mouse and strode to the wall overlooking the rocky ledges above the swirling river. “Such a long way down. So many jagged rocks. Such deep and angry water.”
He turned to face Heironymouse and shook his head with a mixture of anger and regret.
“You aren’t the first to come. The others have been more … impressive … but you’ve made it this far. You certainly deserve to know what you’ve found.” The Count bowed slightly, raising his arm as if introducing a symphony. “All that you see, all that is, begins here, with the Castle Alucard. Have you never wondered why the families of the village never leave? Why visitors are so rare? Have you never wondered what lies beyond this valley?
With a start, Heironymouse realized that he had not wondered. Not once.
“This is the Valley Alucard. Mine. You exist, all of you, to provide all that I need.”
How he found the courage to speak, Heironymouse would never know. “But everyone here. They aren’t mice. They aren’t from the Valley.”
The Count chuckled softly. “Oh, but they were.” He pointed to the village lying below the far wall. “I take what I need. What I want.” He pulled his sash more tautly across his chest. “My needs are many.”
Heironymouse breathed the name. “But Electra …”
“Ah, yes. Electra.” The Count shrugged. “Some work, some provide my sustenance.” He laughed and struck what he clearly took to be a boxer’s stance. “A guy’s gotta eat, you know.”
Heironymouse could hardly breathe.
“But now, the time has come to rid myself of the small annoyance that has been visited upon me today.” The Count leaned toward Heironymouse, the dark centers of his eyes beginning a slow swirl.
Before he was lost in that whirlpool again, Heironymouse pulled the last acron from his pocket, tossed it on the ground, and with the little breath he was able to summon, choked out the phrase he had been rehearsing constantly as he trudged his way to the top of the tower.
“Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.”
Count Alucard fell backwards. “What? What are you saying?”
His voice shaking but louder, Heironymouse repeated: “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.”
“No, You can’t be the one.”
As he spoke, the Count began to stumble, and twist. Before Heironymouse could respond, the Count’s features became liquid; he swayed and then melted quickly and flowed down the drain at the tower’s center. As he changed, the tower too began to reconfigure itself, not dropping precipitously but shrinking in modest increments, and widening.
Soon the castle had become a flat circle of stone on which stood four confused mice, one of whom was indeed Cammy D’Arte who looked at his friend with a mixture of fear and joy. Electra, no longer a weasel, still shone, the loveliest mouse Heironymouse had ever seen.
She approached him and took his hand. “Let’s see what the world is going to be like now. ”
Heironymouse found his voice. “Better. Much better.”