BY ALLAN SHEDLIN
There’s a sense of irony about utilizing modern technology to talk about the traditional art of storytelling with J.S. Friedman, author of the outstanding and award-winning children’s book series Maurice’s Valises; but when the author is in Phu Noi, a village on the coast of the Sea of Thailand, and I’m in my home office in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an online video chat naturally became our method of choice. As Jerry splits his time between Thailand, Amsterdam, and Connecticut and his central character, a peripatetic mouse named Maurice, travels the world in search of fundamental truths, it did seem appropriate to interview the author while he was traveling,
The individual books can be read in any order, though it’s probably best to begin with Book I, In the Beginning, for the back story about how a clever mouse learns that he is “destined to become the new moral compass for all mice.” In it, Maurice gets pegged to travel to many distant lands, noticing what he sees and experiences and passing down his learning down to other mice. Maurice concludes each journey by recording the lessons on Moral Scrolls for others to learn from, and then each tale and its Moral Scroll are stored in its own valise, hence the title.
Grandpa Maurice narrates the tales, enthralling his grandmice (and many nieces and nephews) from his lumpy, bumpy storytelling chair—his favorite “because the lumps were all in the right places.” The language and illustrations are in perfect alignment, with the just-right addition of lightness to make the moral lessons so worthy of attention. That such an opportunity is graced with Chris Beatrice illustrations that are instant classics—the kind that harken back to an era when the art itself signaled that this is a story that demands to be taken seriously—is a wonderful bonus.
At once timely and timeless, each story—enriched by exposure to different cultures, in far-off lands—provides an opportunity for readers to explore universal truths and profound ideas from Aesop, Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Einstein, Mohammed, the Talmud, Thoreau, and countless others.
For me, as a grandfather and an educator, the richness of opportunity to discuss fundamental questions is perhaps the series’ greatest gift. I found them valuable discussion starters for deeper conversations with my grandchildren (who range in age from 7-17). Because publishers assign a range of ages for children’s books so that bookstores know where to shelve them, this series is “recommended” for ages 6-10. Can you imagine restricting Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, or The Phantom Tollbooth to a specific age range? As with any book(s) of this ilk, different ages will derive different understandings—and the tales also appeal to adults. Maurice’s Valises are the kind of story that’s fun to read aloud, because it’s use of language, and opportunities to create different voices for the different characters that entertain both you and your grandchild. Maurice’s Valises, whose breathtaking art and stories traverse geographical borders, will appeal to children and adults across all ages and across all borders.
So pull up your favorite storytelling chair, or cuddle with your grandchild on his/her bed, and begin your travels with Maurice—an orphan mouse given a great responsibility by the Muse of Mice—as he travels, valise in hand, to learn life’s enduring lessons.
Maurice’s App rocks
Maurice’s Valises website offers free downloads that include cutout figures and coloring pages. Maurice’s App features narration, cinematic sound effects, animation, and user interface. Children can turn a doorknob and enter Maurice’s home in the base of a sycamore tree, and they play educational games and rack up “gaming points” that they can use to help Maurice donate free books to children in hospitals around the world.
J. S. Freidman is an internationally known advertising and fine arts photographer, who conceived of and created a photography book to raise consciousness about the elderly. While interviewing “super centenarians” for Earth’s Elders, The Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People, Jerry spoke with a 114-year-old Japanese woman who referred to her “memory box,” and the metaphor for Maurice’s Valises was born.
Chris Beatrice is an award-winning artist whose work has graced the covers of classic children’s books like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. He’s also an acclaimed video-game designer and commercial artist.
The spiritual advisor
Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller) is a Buddhist leader and spokesperson, meditation teacher, chant-master, and poet, who has authored more than thirteen books, including the international bestsellerAwakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World.
Reviewer Allan Shedlin founded REEL FATHERS, to inspire and support men seeking relationships with their children. He’s Grampsy to five grandchildren and the spirit grandfather to three Native American grandchildren