Illustrated by Joe Sutphin
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"The world is always biggest when you're small."
My story starts on the day I lost my entire family.
I'm running as fast as I can behind my big brothers and sisters. Down the hall. Past the mop bucket. Toward the open door.
We're escaping from a place that's foul and creepy and 100 percent HORRIBLE!
It's also the only home my family and I have ever known.
My brothers and sisters are leading the way to our freedom. All ninety-six of 'em. I'm the youngest, not to mention the smallest. All I have to do is tail after them, just like I always do. Wherever they lead, I will follow. I know it'll be a safer place. And better. It has to be!
Abe says so. Winnie, too.
We squeeze through that tiny crack between the door and the wall and enter the Land of the Giants.
The place none of us has ever been before.
Have I mentioned how terrified I am?
A lumpy black mountain reeking of rancid vegetables blocks our way forward. It forces my family to split up. To scatter in all directions.
"You guys?" I cry. "Wait up!"
They can't wait. It's too dangerous.
I try taking a shortcut to catch up with them. I run over the mountain.
My right rear paw punches through something as thin as an eggshell. My leg plunges down into a slimy hole, and I can't lift it out. This isn't a mountain. It's a big, black plastic sack filled with garbage.
My brothers and sisters have totally disappeared.
And I'm trapped.
So, I do what I always do. I panic.
"HELP!" I yell.
This escape was my big brother Benji's idea. But Benji's gone. So are Abe and Winnie and—
I hear the heavy thuds of human shoes behind me.
I yank at my leg. It won't budge. I yank again.
On the third yank, I finally tug my foot free. I need to run. I need to find my family. Because without them, I don't have any idea where I'm supposed to go or what I'm supposed to do!
On the other side of the garbage mountain, I skirt around a crumpled bag labeled D-O-R-I-T-O-S and reach a ledge.
I look around. Can't see anybody.
Then I look down.
There's a three-foot drop to a steel grate covering a dark tunnel.
I close my eyes tight and leap.
I land with a splash in cold, scummy water. I hate when my feet get wet.
"You guys?" I call out. "Did anybody else take the sewer drain? Anybody? Hello?"
No answer. Not even a squeak. Just my own voice echoing back at me.
I've heard humans say, "Are you a man, or are you a mouse?" when one of them is afraid and the other one needs him to be brave.
Well, I am definitely a mouse.
My name is Isaiah. I have never been more frightened in my whole life, and that's saying something, because my whole life has been one big fright fest. But it doesn't get any worse than this.
I don't know where I am. And I've lost my family.
Or they lost me.
Either way, for the first time in my life, I'm completely alone.
"God gave us the acorns, but He doesn't crack them open for us."
I hear a siren.
Flashes of red light slice through the darkness, along with the shrieks of a siren. Yipes! Someone just sounded the alarm.
I want to hide forever in the darkest corner of this dripping drain, but something inside me says, Keep running, Isaiah. Never let them catch you! Go find your family! Hurry! Move it or lose it!
I scamper deeper into the darkness.
I'm extremely speedy. It's all those months I spent on the exercise wheel. Swinging out my tail for balance, I round a blind curve. The strobing flashes of red disappear. So does all the other light. I use my whiskers, just like Mom taught me before she disappeared from the Horrible Place, to feel my way along the damp walls. I barrel headfirst into a black tunnel of nothingness.
And my feet keep getting wetter.
Suddenly, up ahead, I see a split shaft of light.
It's another storm drain.
I scuttle up the slick side wall and come out in an alley littered with trash, some of which looks pretty tasty. But when you're a mouse on the run, trying to catch up with the rest of your family, you really can't stop for a snack, no matter how tempting. I slip on a squishy brown banana peel, slide sideways toward a pile of boxes, and skid through an opening skinnier than a page in a book.
When I glide out (on my bottom) on the other side, I hear voices.
"Find them, you idiot!" snarls one. "Find them all!"
"This isn't my fault," blubbers the other. "I only left the ding-dang door open for a second."
I don't wait to hear any more.
I scale the side of a building. Climb straight up it using tiny holes that humans wouldn't even know were there. When I reach the top, I see a thick, black utility line swaying in the breeze. I spring off the wall, fly through the air, and land with a boing and a bounce.
Using my tail for balance, the way a tightrope walker uses a pole, I race along the bobbing wire.
Soon I'm over another alley. Or maybe a toxic waste dump. The air smells so extremely gross, it makes my whiskers quiver. Rust. Putrid chemicals. The scent of rotting eggs.
My ears are blasted by the shrieks of that alarm horn. It makes my spine shiver all the way down to the tip of my tail. I need my brothers and sisters to buck me up and make me brave.
But I still can't see any of them.
I shout down to the ground anyway.
"You guys? Abe? Winnie? Anybody? Where are you?"
"A mouse may run swiftly, but it can never escape its own tail."
I feel like I've been running for hours, even though it's probably been only five minutes.
The humans are far behind me now, but they're loud—and my ears are extremely sensitive.
"That's ninety-five," says one.
"Make that ninety-six," says the other. "Gotcha!"
Oh, no! They caught my whole family. Abe and Winnie and Benji and—
"Good work," cries one of the humans. "Who's missing?"
"One of the ding-dang blue ones. The runt."
"That's Blue 97. Look! Something's moving behind that barrel!"
"You ain't gettin' away, Blue Boy!"
They take off. So do I.
From the fading sound of their voices, I'd say we're heading in opposite directions.
Have you ever been separated from your family in a strange place?
What did you do? Sit down and cry your eyes out? That's my plan, too.
The terrible thing is, I know exactly where they are. Somewhere I can never, ever go back to.
I know the others will try to escape again. My big brother Benji isn't a quitter. He won't ever give up. He'll hatch another scheme. Soon.
But until then, what would I do? Live in the outside all by myself? I've never had to find my own food or a place to sleep before. Where would I even start?
All of a sudden, the clouds part. The midday sun warms my fur and dries my toes.
I decide to keep moving. I need to find a place where I can hide until Benji and the rest of my family try to break out of the Horrible Place again. When they do, I'll be waiting for 'em!
Now, I know what you're probably thinking: "Wait a second, Isaiah. You're a mouse. Mice are supposed to be nocturnal creatures, nearly blind. That much noontime sunshine must really hurt your eyeballs."
Well, first off, if you don't mind, we mice are nocturnal and crepuscular, which, of course, means we're active throughout the night, as well as at dusk and dawn. How do I know a big word like crepuscular? Oh, I know all sorts of big words. For instance, tenebrous. It's another word for crepuscular.
But as far as the sunshine frying my eyes, not to worry. Unlike a lot of garden-variety field mice, day or night, I have practically perfect eyesight. My sense of smell is amazing, too. Ten times better than a dog's. In fact, I'm incredibly different in a lot of different ways.
For instance, if you saw me, you would definitely scream. Not just because I'm a mouse, but because I'm a blue mouse. The same bright sky blue as the marshmallow rabbits the Long Coats were nibbling on last Easter.
Not to brag, but I'm also very smart, with a very advanced (dare I say urbane?) vocabulary for an animal who only weighs one ounce and measures five and a half inches long.
All of my brothers and sisters are special, too, but in different ways. And we're not all blue. Winnie, for instance, is chartreuse—a bright shade of yellow-green. Abe? He's red, or, as he calls it, "electric crimson."
I'm guessing, however, that none of my ninety-six siblings are as stupendously scared as I am right now, because, basically, I'm the coward in the family. It's true. Out of all ninety-seven of us, I'm the biggest scaredy-cat.
See? I just scared myself with the word cat.
Oh, no, I said it again! My legs go all rubbery as I run full speed along the power line. I slip off and tumble down, head over tail!
There's no net, but luckily, there is a pile of soft, fluffy leaves.
I know what you're thinking. I'm not proud of my faintheartedness and timidity, but it's a sad fact. Benji once said my fur should be yellow instead of blue.
I play dead for a minute or two. Just in case one of the Long Coats followed me this far. Or, worse, there might be a bird circling overhead, looking for lunch.
When all I can hear is the wind rustling through the tall grass and the thumping of my own heart, I slowly raise my head and, hoping against hope, scan the horizon. I'm looking for a familiar snout. A friendly set of whiskers.
"Abe?" I whimper. "Winnie? Benji?"
Of course there's no answer. What I heard the humans say is true. They've all been caught. Every last one.
Except me. The most cowardly mouse in my whole family.
"When you've already lost everything, you have nothing left to lose."
I stand up on my hind legs and check out my surroundings.
I'm alone in the world. And I have absolutely no idea where in the world I am.
I figure I have a choice:
A) I could turn around, run back to the Horrible Place, and turn myself in to the Long Coats. If I do that, I'll be with my family again, sucking sugar water out of a tube and munching on kibble before nightfall, all snug and toasty in my bed of cedar shavings.
B) I can keep running. Find someplace to hide. Wait for my family to escape and find me.
I go with B. Right before we ran out the back door, my cedar shavings got sort of soggy. Don't tell anybody, but the idea of escaping the Horrible Place was such a terrifying thought, I wet my bed.
I read somewhere (yes, I can read—how'd you think I learned all those big words?) that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Okay, a human definitely wrote that. We mice are so small we have plenty to be afraid of. Birds, cats, and clumsy mop pushers who wear clunky work boots.
I may not be courageous, but I am definitely curious. For instance, I wonder what's beyond the tree line at the far side of this field I just landed in?
So I scamper across the tall grass (it tickles) and scurry through a thick stand of evergreens, and just like that, I'm in the suburbs. I think. I can't be certain because I've never seen the Land of Suburbia before. I've only read about it.
That's the one good thing I can say about the Horrible Place: we had books. Lots and lots of books. A whole library full of 'em. We also had tests. Lots and lots of tests.
But, sometimes, when the Long Coats weren't looking, I'd read for fun. I liked adventure stories. In fact, I always wanted to go on a Grand Adventure. Now I know it's just another way to say you're lost and on your own.
Still, there's that niggling curiosity.
The world I just entered is so different from anything I've ever known.
I wander around and check out the sights. Lots of trees, parked cars, and abandoned tricycles. I stick pretty close to the curbs and gutters, just in case I have to make another emergency storm-drain exit.
Some of the big windows in the giant human houses have cats in them. I know they know I'm out here. Cats are clever. Especially when they're hungry.
Speaking of which…
After all of my running and jumping and trembling with fear, the sugar water I gulped down for breakfast (I was too nervous to even look at my kibble) has totally evaporated. I start nosing around for something to eat. And I'm not being too picky or particular.
Did you know that the word mouse supposedly came from the Sanskrit word mus, which means thief? Now, I don't typically think of myself as a thief. I've never taken anything that wasn't freely given to me. I never had to.
But scurrying through Suburbia, a stranger in a strange land, I realize I might not have much of a choice. No Long Coat is going to come along and toss me my daily scoop of crunchy kibble.
Fortunately, a lot of these human homes have large wheeled bins parked in the grass just above the curb. They're all very fragrant.
I sniff the air at the base of one of these tall plastic towers. I can't believe my luck. It's a rolling silo stuffed with slightly used food. Using my claws like grappling hooks, I scale the sheer cliff of Mount Breakfast Buffet and perch atop its summit. One of the white plastic bags stuffed inside the enormous bin is open at the top. I see grapes. A slice of bread speckled with blue-green blotches. And some lumpy mush that might be mashed potatoes (I read about that in a cookbook).
It's a smorgasbord!
My stomach gurgles to remind me that I'm starving and to urge me to steal anything that's edible. Yes, for the first time in my short life, I am acting like a true mouse (or a mus). I'm a food thief.
And I'm loving it!
This gently used food is delicious!
I gobble three wrinkled grapes. Scoop up the mushy stuff (turns out it's cold oatmeal with maple syrup). Devour an apple core.
It's all so scrumptious! I'm discovering new tastes. Expanding my culinary horizons. Like I said, I was raised on nothing but kibble. Dry, disgusting stuff that tastes like cardboard. How do I know what cardboard tastes like? I just accidentally nibbled the corner of a cereal box and recognized the flavor right away. Kibble.
I'm so glad I didn't turn tail and head back to the Horrible Place. This new world is much more delicious.
I lean back on my soft bread bed to savor yet another wrinkled grape when I feel something nudge my food tower.
I peek over the edge.
It's a rat!
"All of us are given gifts. How we use them is up to us."
My fantastic food fortress is being attacked by rats. Giant, buck-toothed, slimy-skinned, mean-tempered RATS!
Yes, rats are related to mice. We're both members of the rodent family. But rats are like the greedy, violent, and despicable cousins. I don't mean to disparage my own extended family, but come on, let's be honest here: rats are awful.
I feel a double thump down below. I muster enough courage to take another peek over the edge of my food barrel.
I do not like what I see.
A gang of huge rats is streaming up out of the nearest sewer drain.
Obviously, the rats smelled the deliciousness of the Slightly Used Food Silo just like I did. Now they want to knock my rolling food cart over and gobble up all the grub that spills out of it—and then nibble on me for dessert.
Good thing the barrel I chose to dive into has wheels. When the rats nudge its base, it doesn't topple over. It simply scoots sideways in the grass.
Frustrated, the rats grumble and bash into the base of the bin even harder, using their heads as battering rams. That's okay. They don't use their heads for much else.
You see, my ratty cousins may be huge and ugly, but they're also dumb. Then again, they haven't been given the "educational opportunities" that I have. None of them is familiar with the theories of balance and weight shift.
On the other hand, they are smart enough to have me trapped. No way am I leaping down to become a bite-sized rat snack.
The crazy rodents keep bumping and thumping and shoving the barrel sideways. The leader of the rat pack looks up and sees me. He twitches his whiskers and sniggers. It is not a friendly sound. It's more like he's smacking his lips in anticipation of the mousy mousse to come.
So I decide it's time to display another one of my rare and unusual talents. There's more to me than just being blue. I take in a deep breath and rise up to my full height, which, just to remind you, is less than six inches.
Compared to me, the rats are gigantic. As big as work boots. It doesn't matter. Like I said, I have this pretty incredible thing I can do.
"KIBBLE!" I scream.
That's right. I can make sounds beyond the usual mouse squeaks and peeps.
I have a voice. I can actually speak some human words, especially ones I've heard over and over.
"KIBBLE!" I shout.
The top rat looks up at me with a new expression in his beady little eyes. I recognize the look. It's fear.
"KIBBLE!" This time I wave my paws like I'm some sort of mad, demented boogeymouse.
Top Rat shrieks and, with a whip of his wiry tail, races back to his sewer grate. The rest of his rat buddies skitter off behind him.
In a flash, they're gone.
And my heart wants to explode inside my chest. It was the first time I've had to save my own life!
I might've scared off the rats, but I'm still pretty scared myself. Okay, I'm petrified. Rat attacks will do that to you.
I want my family!
By the way, did you know that, like most mice mothers, mine had all ninety-seven
- Praise for Word of Mouse:
—Booklist (starred review, audiobook edition)
- On Sale
- Dec 12, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- JIMMY Patterson Books