THE MOUSE OF AMHERST By Elizabeth Spires Illustrated by Claire Nivola Farrar, Straus & Giroux 64 pp., $15 Ages 8 and up
Imagine living with Emily Dickinson and sharing verses with this acclaimed American poet. Then, imagine being a mouse! That's the premise behind Elizabeth Spires's charming new book, "The Mouse of Amherst."
Here, a little nobody of a mouse moves into the wainscoting of Dickinson's bedroom. Reflecting on this auspicious event, Emmaline says, "Before I met Emily, the great poet of Amherst, I was nothing more than a crumb gatherer, a cheese nibbler, a mouse-of-little-purpose."
All that changes when Emmaline finds Dickinson's poems scattered about the room. Some create in Emmaline a poetic ecstasy. She thrills to the emotions poetry records and unleashes. She contemplates the phenomenon and agonizes over the question, "What is poetry?" In one verse, the tiny mouse-poet of Amherst writes: "My pen is writing this,/ Words whirl in my brain./ Is that what Poetry is?/ A pleasurable pain!"
Soon Emmaline discovers that poetry is her calling - when she's not beguiled by the aroma of cheese or an instinctive desire to pull stuffing from a chair.
Spires, acknowledged and honored as a poet in her own right, crafts this tale around 18 gem-like poems - fully half of them Dickinson's. As Emmaline and her friend explore the question of poetry, the mouse character adds lightness and amusement to this exquisite little story. It has the quiet drama of a Dickinson poem: tension, climax, and resolution.
New England artist Claire Nivola adds appropriately delicate black-and-white illustrations on almost every page. The pleasing simplicity of this artwork - such as a little mouse figure dressed in frock and apron - is reminiscent of an earlier period in children's literature. Some readers may be reminded of Garth Williams's 1940s pen-and-ink illustrations of a dapper little mouse in "Stuart Little," by E.B. White.
"The Mouse of Amherst" is a small, slim volume, with a beautiful design. It has the look and feel of a special poetry book, which, of course, it is. But it's also an appealing animal story, a somewhat fanciful introduction to Emily Dickinson, and an altogether delightful read.
*Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.