In Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voigt’s middle-grade book Young Fredle, the titular mouse becomes extremely ill after feasting on chocolate, and his family thrusts him out into the world alone. Fredle (rhymes with “medal”) becomes healthy again, but the indoor mouse must learn to be wholly independent in the great outdoors. As an author and former teacher, Voigt discusses the importance of making mistakes on the road to independence.
Find more novels with great boy characters among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
What was the inspiration for Young Fredle and how did it evolve?
It’s sort of a sad little story. We live sort of in the country. Our microwave oven is kept in a low-lying cabinet. There was a mouse in it, so I closed the door of course, hoping it would go away. I came back in five minutes and the mouse was still there.
I’m not good at killing creatures. I put it on a cookie sheet and took it outside and set it free by my husband’s pickup truck. I went back a day later and discovered it with its feet up in the air. But it started me thinking. Then I have this grandson named Frederic. He has these big brown mouse eyes, you know, how those mouse eyes take over their face. That’s how it developed.
In the way that Fredle describes his family pushing an ill or elderly mouse out of the nest, it’s not cruel, but rather a survival tactic. Was it important not to make that a moral choice, but rather an instinctive choice on the part of the mice?
I thought pretty hard about that. Questions were raised, not about the subject but about whether Fredle shouldn’t have a resentment because he was pushed out. But it seems to me, having observed my dogs and cats, they take what comes to them. A three-legged dog doesn’t wistfully wish for a fourth. It thinks, “I have three, how will I use them?”
Matter-of-factness for that kind of behavior makes psychological sense to me. There’s a sort of stoic acceptance. There are ways I’d like to be an animal and live entirely in the present. It’s the disadvantage of having a human imagination and intelligence—you can worry ahead of time and think you can be in control. There are advantages, too, of course.
Many of your books place the hero or heroine in a situation in which they must achieve independence in order to grow or even survive, as with Fredle. Is that a theme that interests you?
I think probably one of my basic beliefs about life is that it’s easier not to be independent in many, many ways. The classroom is the best example. The people who get the As are the ones who figure out what the teacher wants of them, rather than what they want. And that’s dangerous.
Here’s the interesting thing about characters who learn they can be independent—marvelous things happen to them. If I could figure out a story in which the person doesn’t get thrown out of the home and also manages to be successfully independent, I would be very happy. There are no explosions in that kind of situation. The real challenges are in ordinary daily life. I don’t know if you can write successfully about it. You have to be patient as a reader to have that work. I’ve never wanted to make other people’s mistakes—I make my own. I want my students to make their own mistakes, not mine.
Your title, Young Fredle, suggests there might be other books as Fredle gets older. Will there be?
I think Fredle is only going to have one book. But he’s young in the book. It’s about how you can do these things when you’re young. Let’s see, “Old Fredle.” Unless he decides he wants to go back to the house, in which case I hope he stays in the cellar.
Knopf / Jan. 11, 2011 / 9780375864575; 9780375964572 (PLB) / $16.99; $19.99 (PLB)