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“Ned Mouse Breaks Away,” “The Devil’s Toenail”

by Payal Kapadia

“Ned Mouse Breaks Away,” Tim Wynne-Jones, Groundwood Books; 2003; 192 pp.

If you were caught playing with your spinach — or worse, using long, stringy bits of it to write “I hate what Mom makes me eat” — what would happen? You’d probably get grounded for a few days, right? But imagine if you got locked up for years on end, and maybe you’ll better understand Ned Mouse’s predicament.

Sure, he wrote with his spinach, but it’s what he wrote that got him into hot water with folks who are much less forgiving of criticism than parents are — the government.

After he scribbles “The government is unfair to mice,” Ned finds himself dressed in a convict’s stripes and thrown into a cramped cell with a guard who just can’t understand why anyone in prison would want to get out.

But Ned Mouse does. More than anything else he wants to escape. He digs a tunnel, he builds a plane, he tries squeezing down the drainhole in the bathtub — and gets caught each time.

He gives up, years go by, and then he receives a letter from an old friend who’s just moved to a house by the sea. And memories — the cry of seagulls, the smell of the ocean, even the taste of chocolate — come flooding back to torment him. This time, Ned is ready to give an arm and a leg to break out of jail (quite literally, although divulging more will spoil it for you).

This subversive, thought-provoking tale about the desire for freedom questions whether punishment is the best way to deter crime. Jail, as Ned puts it, is a waste of time and money when there are “only a few really bad people in it.” This all might sound rather serious, but the wit with which the story is told carries you along.

A healthy spirit of disobedience, the book suggests, isn’t a bad thing (although many governments are far from tolerant of dissenters). Ned isn’t a criminal; he’s a hero who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. And his determination to escape brings about a change of heart in the guard, too.

Dusan Petricic’s humorous illustrations of Ned attempting to escape (more than once), dreaming about the outside world and eventually hitting upon an ingenious way to get out make this an amusing tale that you could easily read at one go.

As for the spinach, I don’t think you’d get thrown into prison if you copied what Ned did with it — but honestly, you’re better off eating it.

For children 8 years and older. Available in hard cover (at the end of June) at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131.

“The Devil’s Toenail,” Sally Prue, Oxford University Press; 2002; 145 pp.

There’s one person Stevie Saunders hates more than anyone else in the world: himself.

Stevie desperately wants to be Daniel, who’s got everything he hasn’t: good looks, money, a way with girls — and style. But it looks like poor Stevie is stuck with being, well, just Stevie.

The one way he can live with himself is by fitting into Daniel’s gang. Daniel has thought up a little initiation test for him, though: Set fire to the trash can in the library. And Daniel knows that there’s something about fire that terrifies Stevie . . .

Stevie feels like a loser till he finds a shell on the beach, commonly known as a devil’s toenail for its distinctive shape. It’s about 4 × 3 cm in size, domelike, narrower at one end than the other — and it makes a new man out of awkward teenage Stevie.

It starts “speaking” to him — whatever Daniel can do, the toenail seems to tell him, Super Stevie can do better — or “badder.” So Stevie tries his hand at a few things the gang would approve of — shoplifting, vandalism, breaking and entering. Others he begins to fantasize about — joyriding in a stolen red Mercedes, setting something on fire . . .

One day, his family goes to the beach on a holiday. His younger sister, Claire, wants to climb up the rocky cliffs. Stevie and Claire climb up to the very top. Standing at the edge, Claire tells Stevie how ugly he is. In that moment of truth, he must decide whether he’d rather be Stevie — ugly, unpopular Stevie who lets his baby sister tell him off — or someone else.

This book doesn’t fall into the category of upbeat children’s fiction that celebrates how wonderful it is to be young. It’s a gritty, somber read from an author who hasn’t forgotten how hard growing up can be for some kids — and how cruel some children can be to others. Stevie’s world is a harsh and violent place.

Prue’s exploration of the “hidden” issue of school bullying is frank, yet moving. She depicts all the players in the bullying game with clear insight: Bullies like Daniel; victims of bullying, like Stevie, who seek acceptance from their oppressors; and finally, the bystanders who let the bullying happen because it’s happening to someone else.

“The Devil’s Toenail” also explores how painful it is for victims of bullying to talk to their parents or their teachers about what’s happening. Instead, they feel guilty — for being the sort of kids that others want to push around.

Maybe you’ve been picked on, or know someone who has. Even if that’s not the case, bullying does happen. Sometimes all it takes to put a stop to bullying is to make kids aware of how terrible it is to be on the receiving end.