A special sense of fun and wonder pervades this outstanding new book. Denise Doyen's inventive story and language provides the fun (and some beguiling mischief and suspense), and illustrator Barry Moser's enchanted nighttime environment provides the wonder. The atmospheric setting is recognizable yet transcendent, and the word-and-picture imagery yields fresh verbal and visual landscapes for toddlers through grade-schoolers. This magical story about nighttime mouse adventures (and one mouse's particularly bold/foolhardy escapade), is one of those rare tales that adults and kids will genuinely enjoy.
First-time author Doyen judiciously uses a literary device called portmanteau, creating a new word through the combination of two or more words that share meaning, sound, or both. The result is a poetic whole that communicates much more than its parts: Connotation, symbolism, and a kind of magic-speak that children spontaneously verbalize during language acquisition. Because of that linguistic realism, it's cute but neither cloying nor gimmicky.
It's probably best to give an example. Here, in an early scene, a troop of cautiously crawling mice confronts young "Jam," a bold rascal of a mouse who blocks their path towards safety:
"They runrunnel through the riddle--
Secret ruts hid inbetwiddle--
But one mousling jams the middle--
Whilst he goofiddles, others howl:
Who's the holdup? What's the matter?
Night's qui-etiquette is shattered!
Eldermice race toward the chatter;
Scattered line, slowed to a crawl.
What do they find?"
The mice have reason to fear unseen nocturnal dangers, for predators are wily and fast, with keen eyes and appetites. The following stanzas are set against a dark, reedy part of the marsh (punctuated by fireflies!), framed by a barely-seen snake at lower left, and a large bird of prey flying on the right:
"Cold eyes of gold watch without wink
For our ears and eyes of pink,
From out the air, the field the brink,
They slink up on a mouse at play.
If those who swoop or them that pounce
Glimmer just a whisk! An inch! An ounce!
Jaw-claws will trounce a wayward mouse,
Renounce jam foolery!
Go home and stay."
As much as "Once Upon a Twice" may remind some of "nonsense" poems (most famously, "Jabberwocky"), the preceding excerpt shows that the book's wonder and building suspense doesn't rely on neologisms. Doyen ignites our senses with her dramatic imagery and bold sentence structure even with "ordinary" words. They seem magical and ancient, as if we've discovered a parchment written by faeries. For every new clever word combination (for example, "riskarascal," "preycautions," "mouncelors," "wanderyonder") there are anchor words and phrases that make Jam's very narrow snake escape understandable for young audiences.
Of course, credit also belongs to multiple award-winning illustrator Barry Moser, one of our best illustrators, and a national treasure. He portrays a darkened, dangerous habitat, but illuminates the foreground with just enough overhead and reflected light to focus our attention on each scene's most important elements. Moser imbues the animals with easily recognizable emotions, and he helps us follow the action by pointing their eyes towards the pages' focal points. It's a lush, magical place for youngsters, and reminds me of the very best set decorations on a Disneyland ride. This ranks among Moser's best work.
Doyen is a master storyteller; her poetic images and fully developed narrative deliver sensational fun and excitement. It's one of the best kids' books I've read in many years; I predict both critical and popular acclaim. Doyen and Moser's rarely seen harmony of spirit and tone illuminate the extraordinary that often lies just beyond our reach.
Note for Teachers and Parents: "Once upon a Twice" is appropriate for creative lessons in language, poetry, folklore, nature, and illustration, and the large format will work for group or individual reading. However, I see this new classic on a more personal level: An adult and a child creating their own special moments together while sharing the book. Over time (perhaps "once upon a twice") it becomes a treasured favorite, and a memory-making keeper.