“In a province of a country ruled by a merciless and powerful emperor, there lived a man called Basket Weaver.”
So begins Basket Weaver and Catches Many Mice by Janet Gill, illustrated by Yangsook Choi (Knopf, 1999), a charming fable about a skilled basket-weaver, who would take especial care when weaving beds for newborn babies, using exactly the right materials to suit their name – like owl feathers for wisdom or Pink Everlasting flowers for a long life. One day he rescues a drowning cat, who decides to stay with him, something that pleases him for: “In his country, cats received much honor. Everyone knew that cats followed their own minds and always made wise choices”. He names her Catches Many Mice, “for he believed everyone should have a name to live up to.”
They live and work happily together until the day Delivers Messages arrives with a message from the Emperor ordering him to take part in a contest with three other basket weavers to make a bed for his new daughter. The winner will live in the palace and be granted three requests… the losers will be sent to work in the mines for seven years. Basket Weaver spends the next five days making his finest ever basket – but he discovers at the least minute that he only has one brightly-colored feather from the birds who have already flown away for the winter. His cradle is not perfect and he arrives at the palace in some trepidation – all the more so because Catches Many Mice has disappeared – apparently one of her “wise choices” – or is it…?
I won’t spoil the story – all I will say is that it ends more than satisfactorily, after a suitable surprise and three requests being grudgingly granted. This is a story that stays with you quite a long time after hearing it. Talking afterwards about the requests, which were much more difficult for the emperor to grant than the wish for gold and jewels he expected, both Older Brother and Younger Brother recognised that there was no way round it: the winner could not have asked for anything else and have remained true to himself. They found it quite a sobering and heart-warming thought.
They enjoyed Yangsook Choi’s illustrations too – Basket Weaver’s gentle character shines through; the emperor is suitably imposing, as is everything to do with him; there are interesting details in the basket-weaving; it’s a very bedraggled cat that is pulled out of the eddying water; and there is unobtrusive humor wherever Catches Many Mice is shown after that. All in all, a lovely readaloud, perfect for a bedtime story.
You can read an interview with Yangsook Choi in our current issue of PaperTigers – and she also features in our Gallery.