You probably wouldn’t mind sharing your own house with Pearson’s mouse, who nonetheless decides to build her own in the first chapter of this soft-colored, thick-papered picture book. Her animal friends assist her, each bringing her something within their range of abilities. The spider offers to spin curtains, a wren brings twigs and string, and a goat produces some cheese — which it is very eager to eat!
In a later “tale,” as the mouse settles down to sleep in her new abode, she hears odd noises: “Nibble nibble nibble slurp slibber slabber slobber … BURP!” Here Pearson gives a clever twist to her story: To discover the source of those sounds, the mouse becomes a mouse catcher — and finds a companion. If there’s one criticism to make of this beautifully produced and amiable book, it is that Pearson’s narrative voice is inconsistent; sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, so that the reader, falling happily into one mode or the other, is caught off guard when the tempo changes.
“Cheese Belongs to You!” is a very different sort of book about very different creatures. Bright yellow endpapers, riddled with holes like a good Jarlsberg, lead to a sketchy red and white drawing of a cute, big-eyed rat with a ribbon tied to the end of its tail. “THIS IS RAT LAW,” Deacon writes: “Cheese belongs to YOU.” Already, the voice of the story is a little wacky, a little bestial — all because Deacon chose to drop the article “the” before “cheese.” (Surely a mouse would never do such a thing.)
That first, beribboned rat doesn’t get to keep “cheese” because with each page other rats come to vie for it — each bigger and nastier than the last, until “big, quick, strong, scary, hairy, dirty rats” fight another thuggish group, this one in battered hats, like old-time gangsters; a bloody battle ensues. Without giving away the ending, adults concerned about the example set by all this fighting over food should feel reassured: Schwarz’s final scene shows rats sitting nicely at a long banquet table, sharing “cheese” and passing the salt and pepper.
Deacon is an illustrator as well as an author, and two of his books, “Beegu” and “Jitterbug Jam” (written by Barbara Jean Hicks), have received New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards. He and Schwarz, who previously collaborated on “A Place to Call Home,” work beautifully together. Schwarz’s pictures do a lot of narrative work, adding increasingly rapacious, characterful rats while somehow keeping the pages attractive. Her palette is simple (flat blue or white backgrounds; sketchily drawn creatures; what appears to be a bright photo of the precious hunk of orange cheese), but the composition of each page is such a change from the one preceding it that it seems zippy and new. The rats of “Cheese Belongs to You!” may not be as endearing as your average storybook mouse, but — maybe even better — they’re really good for a laugh.