By the time most of us abandon the children's section of the library, we have a full barnyard rattling around our imaginations: pigs, wolves, bears, chickens, and the occasional spider. And with apologies to Winnie the Pooh, there are probably more rodents skittering around up there than any other animal: motorcycle-riding mice, boating mice, befrienders of downtrodden servant girls, the warrior mice of Redwall.
But if you ask the newest generation of readers for their favorite literary mouse, she'll probably be wearing red cowboy boots.
Caldecott-prize-winning author Kevin Henkes works in mice the way other artists work in watercolors or oils. (Ironically, he won the Caldecott medal last year for a tale involving a cat.) From "Chrysanthemum," the story of a mouse who is bullied because of her unusual name, to "Owen," who foils all efforts to separate him from his beloved blanket, Henkes uses big-eared stand-ins to gently handle subjects important to small children.
But Lilly, with her outsize personality and "nifty disguises," is his go-to girl. Since her first and only supporting role in 1988's "Chester's Way," (in which she saved friends Chester and Wilson from a lifetime of fuddy-duddiness), Lilly has commanded the spotlight. (That was also the first and last time Lilly managed to get through a book without the "uncooperative chair.")
In our house, the undisputed favorite is "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," in which our intrepid heroine learns how to bottle her enthusiasm during class and how, gulp, to say she's sorry.
But "Julius, Baby of the World," also comes in for repeated readings. In that tale, Lilly is convinced that her "disgusting" baby brother is the worst thing that has ever happened – until her Cousin Garland comes to visit and voices similar sentiments.
In her newest outing, Lilly's Big Day, Lilly is determined to fulfill her destiny: to become a flower girl. Her teacher, Mr. Slinger, he of the "artistic shirts" and infinite patience, is getting married. Lilly's so sure that he'll ask her to be the flower girl that she spends hours practicing. "First she changed into something more appropriate. Then she held her head high and smiled brightly and raised her eyebrows and turned her head from side to side and carried her hands proudly in front of her ... and walked the length of her room very very slowly. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth."
Unfortunately, Mr. Slinger has a niece, Ginger, who has nabbed the coveted role. When he tries to explain, Lilly is crushed, so he promptly creates a new position for her: flower girl assistant. (She gets to wear a corsage and straighten Ginger's dress.) But when Ginger gets stage fright, Lilly's practice comes in handy.
Henkes uses sly asides, repetition, and interpretive dance to create stories that are deceptively simple. For example, when Lilly's Grammy takes her shopping for a dress to wear to the wedding, the salesgirl gushes, "She's adorable." Grammy dryly responds, "In small doses." Parents may not realize how much is packed in until their 10th read-through when they're still not sick of the story.
My 4-year-old son has never exactly longed to get all dressed up and strew rose petals, but he asked for "Lilly's Big Day" every day for a week. The "Purple Plastic Purse," however, still reigns supreme as our favorite Lilly accessory. In the words of Mr. Slinger, it's "absolutely fabulous."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.