Tumtum and Nutmeg

“Once there were two married mice called Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse, and they lived in great style.”

That is a great opening line for a children’s book! Children immediately know who and what the main characters are – married mice, that they live in such a way that we might be interested in knowing more – living in great style, and that they have a sweet name that automatically implies an English author in the style of Beatrix Potter. If you read nothing else of Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn, you would have a good sense of what the story is about.

“The house was called Nutmouse Hall, and it was situated in the broom cupboard of a small human dwelling called Rose Cottage. A broom cupboard might not sound like a very grand place for a house, but this broom cupboard was special. It had creamy white walls, mottled red tiles on the floor, and a tiny sash window behind a curtain of honeysuckle.”

The entire story has this sweet and friendly tone. Like a real friend to children, Emily Bearn’s narrator describes each scene to the reader with the little details that children are most apt to care about. The result is an endearing tale of friendly mice who decide to help the motherless human children of Rose Cottage, Arthur and Lucy Mildew. While Arthur and Lucy’s absent-minded inventor father, Mr. Mildew, loves his children dearly, he is too lost in his work to be sensible about clothing, meals, and other human necessities. Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse have no children of their own and they decide to pour out their love on Arthur and Lucy by mending clothing, fixing broken appliances, tidying the nursery, and other little acts of love. Fearful of being discovered by the humans, the Nutmouses pretend to be fairies and do all of their work when the children are sleeping.

“Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse had been married a long time, but they still called each other by their affectionate pet names they had adopted during their engagement. Mrs. Nutmouse called Mr. Nutmouse Tumtum, because he had such a large one, and Tumtum called Mrs. Nutmouse Nutmeg, because she had nutmeg hair.”

All goes well until the children’s Aunt Ivy comes to stay. Aunt Ivy does not like mice. In fact, she doesn’t really seem to like Arthur and Lucy either. The Mildews have no idea that the Nutmouses are living in Rosewood Cottage nor that their neighbors have mice living in their homes as well. When Aunt Ivy discovers the mice, she declares war on them. Tumtum eats some poison from Aunt Ivy and is deathly ill for several chapters. Terrified Nutmeg discovers that Aunt Ivy intends to kill any mice living in the walls with gas, so she enlists the neighborhood mice to help her battle Aunt Ivy.

This darling story reminds me both of Beatrix Potter’s stories as well as Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Like each of those series, the peril is great but the outcome is obviously going to be pleasing to our primary characters. Also like in those series, the creative value is high and the content is wholesome.

In our book group, Potato Peel Pie Book Community, a number of moms mentioned that their young readers enjoyed this book for a while and then got bored. I puzzled over that when I was reading. What would cause that to happen for more than a few readers? I noticed that it happened with my own eight year old reader. She delighted in the story at first but then lost interest.

I think that it might be a stamina issue. The story is so sweet and engaging in the beginning that it is easy to get hooked. Mice eating dinner in a doll house is just too much fun to ignore. Once Tumtum gets sick, however, the tone of the story shifts ever so slightly into something more akin to an adventure story. The writing is still very friendly, but the stamina required to get through the many phases of the battle might be too much for a young reader. And the story may not be engaging enough to an older reader.

If you have an eight to ten year old reader who is reading above age level, this might be just perfect. Sweet and delightful, but long and sufficiently British in language to be challenging to young American readers.

I found that the Audible version, however, was a pleasure to listen to. Even my ten year old boy who had no interest in reading the book enjoyed listening to the audiobook. My six year old boy asked me to buy all of the sequels and keep them on his quiet time playlist for many re-listens.