What happens when you put a children’s book illustrator together with a child psychologist? You get a mouse hit on the head by a stone.
In the 1960s, the illustrator Eteinne Delessert contacted the celebrated Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to seek advice. Piaget had decades before laid out his pioneering theory about cognitive development in children, about how knowledge grows, based on his years of observation and verbal interactions with children at Geneva’s Rousseau Institute’s experimental playground the Maison des Petits. So Delessert, who had been criticized for his previous children’s books—that they were beyond a child’s capacity to understand, ‘too sophisticated, too avant-garde,’ thought it behooved him before he started a new book project to learn all he could about a child’s interpretation of the world.
With the input of Piaget and Piaget’s colleague, Odile Mosimann, Delessert wrote and designed How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and So Discovered the World, a lyrical tale about a five-year-old mouse. The story follows the small rodent, who’s lived under the ground for the entirety of his young life, and his attempt to make a room of his own. He digs a tunnel, and no sooner is he able to appreciate his work than a stone from the ceiling bashes him in the head, scaring him blind. The small mouse opens his eyes, and for the first time, he can see his paws and the color of his fur in the light of the day. He looks up and asks the sun, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before… Are you the one who is hurting my eyes?” The sun replies, “Yes, because I shine so brightly… I am the sun, and I am very old. I came a long time ago, about the same time as mice.” The mouse then asks the sun, how he started to shine. “Once a gentleman lit me with a huge match,” the sun replies. “Every morning he throws me high in the sky and I shine; but in the evening he catches me again. Then night takes my place.” The little mouse, peering out of his burrow, finds the world comes to him: the wind and the rain, the snow and the petals of flowers. “And those little lights all around you, what are they?” the mouse asks. “Bits of moon?” “No, those are stars,” the moon answers. “Stars are little sparks that have gathered together. They shine in the night like cats’ eyes.” The mouse at last comes out of his hole and joins the sun “for a long trip on which they will meet many new friends.”
In the text Delessert wove the questions that Piaget had originally posed to children in the 1920s and their answers, such as what made the sun shine. The psychologists read the author-artist’s first draft of the story to twenty-three five- and six-year-olds, testing their comprehension: sentence by sentence, word by word, one idea at a time. They questioned them about the illustrations, including having them make their own drawings to match the storyline. According to Piaget, it was “pleasing to discover that the pictures made by the children themselves resembled Delessert’s sketches, often to a striking degree.” Nevertheless the text had to be tweaked. The child in 1970 no longer believed, as did the child in the 1920s, that “the sky and the clouds were made of stones stuck together.” The line was revised to disappointingly read, “The sky is made of tightly-packed little clouds.”
To Delessert’s credit, however, for all the book’s conceit, the risk of it being didactic or just plain dull, How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head is imaginative, the art is at once reminiscently surreal and ahead of its time. As for Piaget, perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that he had first been trained as a naturalist.
Sources: Jean Piaget, Foreword, and Etienne Delessert, How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and So Discovered the World, 1971; Anita Silvey, ed., Children’s Books and Their Creators, 1995; Jean Piaget Society; Jean Piaget, Jacques Vonèche, preface, The Child’s Conception Of the World, 2007.
(Image: Etienne Delessert, How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and So Discovered the World, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)