In 1967—more than half a century ago—one of the most brilliant bookmakers of all time, Leo Lionni, created Frederick.
It’s an old book, a quiet book. Although beloved, it rarely comes up in my publishing conversations today. So I was surprised when Frederick popped into my mind a couple of weeks ago, seemingly out of nowhere, and stayed there. “What have you come back to say, little mouse?” I wondered. I dug out my old copy, read and re-read it, propped it up on my kitchen counter, mused on it, even called friends to discuss it. And now, two weeks later, I understand why this 53-year-old mouse crept into the forefront of my mind. And I’ll tell you! In just a moment…
But first, for those who are unfamiliar with this book, Frederick is the story of a daydreamy field mouse who spends his summer days very differently from his mouse family. As the other mice work busily night and day to gather nuts, wheat, and straw, Frederick instead gathers sun rays, colors, and words. Later, when all of the supplies have been exhausted, and “corn was only a memory,” the mice ask Frederick for his contribution to the group.
“Close your eyes,” Frederick tells them, climbing atop a tall rock. And from his stone perch he envelops the other mice in lush words that bring the warmth of the sun’s golden glow, that paint within their gray minds the bright colors of blue periwinkles, golden wheat, and berry bushes.
On its surface, Frederick is a book about the importance of seasons. (It even ends with Frederick’s cheerful, climactic postulation “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?”) But it is about so much more than seasonality. It raises enormously relevant questions to life during a pandemic. Here are just a few:
How does a community work together to prepare for challenging times ahead?
Are certain kinds of work more valuable to survival than others?
What must we stockpile? And how can it be shared?
And what is the role of the artist—the storyteller—in times where such urgent matters as loss of life are our endless preoccupation?
Frederick remains perched on my countertop. I still listen to him every day. I continue to puzzle through answers to the questions he raises. And, because of Frederick, I’m also gathering much more of the immaterial than I would have were he not tucked away in semi-isolation with me. I watch sunrises a little closer and sunsets a little longer. I catch and store sounds of splashing and laughter. I tuck away inside my heart the smiling eyes of a masked neighbor, or even a stranger. In an uncertain world, it feels easier to do a better job of fortifying for a difficult fall and winter ahead with the help of this tiny and timely mouse friend.
Kirsten Hall is a children’s book agent at Catbird Productions and award-winning author (The Jacket; The Gold Leaf; The Honeybee).