Friday, September 10, 2010

Benjamin and Bumper to the Rescue

By Molly Coxe
Photographed by Olivier Toppin
$16.95, ages 3 and up, 40 pages

A royal cat is on the prowl for a tender morsel to eat and unless a little boy mouse and a stuffed pachyderm can outwit him, that morsel could be the boy's mother.

In this enchanting adventure, Benjamin Middlemouse enlists his elephant friend Bumper to help him find his missing mother, only to discover Sir Pouncelot the cat is prepping her for his dinner.

Award-winning Coxe, author of the early readers Big Egg and R is for Radish, transforms a simple tale into a magical picture book with miniature scenes that only the most delicate fingers could arrange.

Wool felt animals small enough to fit in a child's hands, some with clay paws, others with medieval outfits, are positioned in cluttered rooms and rustic settings in a real-life medieval village.

Every scene is exquisitely photographed by France's Toppin, whose use of light and perspective will make readers want to believe everything they see and might even inspire some to fashion a tiny hideaway for a toy mouse of their own.

When Mrs. Middlemouse doesn't return to their home in a child's wardrobe after running errands, son Benjamin, a soft little mouse with blue gingham pants and a jute belt, decides he'd better load up his friend Bumper, an elephant living on the bed outside the wardrobe, and set off to look for her.

Of course, no search-and-rescue mission would be complete without a makeshift howdah, the large saddle used on elephant safaris, and an ornate blanket with pom-poms, and let's see how much gear Benjamin can pack on the back of his good friend:

There's his teeny tiny tool box, which is always handy if he has to rig something up. No doubt he'll need a little coil of twine if he has to climb furniture. (Just stick the coil to Bumper's bumper with a sewing pin -- no worries, stuffed toys have a tough little toosh.)

And don't forget to load up an alphabet block (so he can step onto stuff), a dollhouse croquet mallet and dinner fork (should he need to clobber someone), and of course, no boy mouse would be without a rubber band slingshot and a good supply of kernels to fling. 

Then for good measure, add in a red-and-white battle flag and a royal medal of valor.

Now that Bumper's back is packed to overflowing, the resourceful pair begins their search, first traveling over an area rug littered with half-played old games and well-worn books, then making their way to the kitchen to sniff for signs of Benjamin's mother. 

Once in the kitchen, Benjamin casts a climbing rope onto a table so that the grappling hook, a silver button, catches between stacked dishes, and once on top of the table, he piles up two sugar cubes so he can look inside a cup.

But, his search is to no avail. "Where could she be?" he asks himself.

Perhaps the Pantrymice have seen his mother. So on they go into the pantry to inquire of a family of mice who are playing among the baskets. Luck has it, Posie Pantrymouse just saw Benjamin's mother heading to the garden to pick a tomato.

But be careful, Posie's father adds, Sir Pouncelot the cat is outside on the hunt for ingredients for his favorite dish -- mice 'n' mole casserole.

Oh no. "We have to warn Mom!" Benjamin cries.

As we all know, elephants move at a slow, methodical pace, so quick as he can, Benjamin unpacks parts of a scooter from Bumper's back, rigs them together and off they zip down a rocky path to the tomato patch.

Once there, Mom is nowhere to be found, but Bumper spots her list of errands in the mulch (she's already checked off "chocolate chip" and "bread crumb," but not "tomato"). And isn't that the scent of Sir Pouncelot?

With no time to waste, they head to the far recesses of the garden to Sir Pouncelot's tower and scale the ancient stairway. But since the steps are too steep for a stiff-legged stuffed elephant, Benjamin creates a rope ladder from nails and frayed strips of fabric to help him up.

At the top, they find a locked door with a chicken wire-screened window. Balancing on an old can of peas, Benjamin peers inside to see his mom locked away in a bird cage as Sir Pouncelot stirs a batch of cheese sauce to pour over her.

How will they ever distract the big Persian long enough to free his mother?

Luckily for Benjamin, he's brought along a sewing kit, a fishing pole and his handy slingshot. But even if he gets Mom out, what's to stop this hungry fellow from dining on them next time?

Cozy to look at and a delight to read, this is one of those books kids will love to get lost in. Charming details are packed into every scene, from rope ladders made from matches and twine to patchwork pinafores.

Read this one at bedtime and watch your children drift off to sleep with a smile on their faces -- eyes closed tight, as they replay the magic of the story in hopes that it continues into their dreams.

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