These two books are part of the Dimwood Forest series. If you look them up, you will see that there's another book, Ragweed, that comes before this one chronologically, but we opted to start with Poppy for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, even though Ragweed's story happens first, his story was not written first. It was written third. And, as with The Chronicles of Narnia, I'm a stickler for reading books in the order they were written in. If that means they fall out of order chronologically, then so be it.
It many cases, reading them in the order of publication sheds some added insight into the stories that would be lost if you read them in the forced chronological order, and that's definitely the case with these books. Ragweed starts out as a character in Poppy, but within the first chapter, he gets eaten by the evil owl, Mr. Ocax. We'd hardly become acquainted with Ragweed and so, although his death was sad, it didn't traumatize any of us. We didn't know Ragweed well enough to be traumatized.
But can you imagine what my boys' reaction would have been if we'd started with Ragweed's story, been on an adventure with him, and then he was gobbled up in the first chapter of Poppy? It would have been so devastating. As it is, we've gotten to know Ragweed first through the eyes of Poppy and Ragweed's family. Our curiosity has been piqued about this strong-willed, independent little mouse. We know what the final outcome will be, but that only makes Ragweed's story more alluring. By beginning with Poppy, we're seeing the series as it unfolded for Avi, and that's worth something. If you read these to your kids, I'd recommend doing it the same way.
Anyway, back to the two books at hand.
Poppy's story begins on a beautiful summer evening on Bannock Hill. Poppy, a deer mouse, and her boyfriend, Ragweed, are on top of it without permission from Mr. Ocax, the owl who rules Dimwood Forest. Ragweed laughs in the face of rules. He will do whatever he pleases without asking permission from anybody, including and especially Mr. Ocax. But he underestimates Mr. Ocax's need for power, and, as I told you before, Mr. Ocax swoops in and gobbles him up.
While the reader might not be devastated (but surprised and a little shocked, yes), Poppy most certainly is. Her journey back to her family's home at Gray House is dangerous. Mr. Ocax is out to get her. It is not acceptable that any mouse who defied his orders should live. When she gets home, she doesn't find any respite. Her parents' little family, as mice are apt to do, has multiplied rapidly and have totally outgrown Gray House. Lungwort, Poppy's father, has found a new place to live, New House, but moving there will require permission from Mr. Ocax.
It's permission that he won't grant, and he claims that it's because of Poppy's disobedience, but Poppy gets the feeling that there's something about New House that Mr. Ocax doesn't want them to know. Boldly, she sets out alone to find out for herself. Along the way, she meets Ereth, a porcupine with a colorful tongue and a penchant for salt, and does things she never dreamed she was capable of.
My kids love a book with a classic villain, and Mr. Ocax is classic. He's mean and controlling but also manipulative and cowardly. He convinces Poppy's family that he is actually their protector from, wait for it, porcupines. I thought this speech from Poppy's father was quite telling of the brainwashing many dictators do in order to keep their subjects placid and obedient: "Mr. Ocax has always been most accommodating. Need I remind you that he protects us from porcupines . . . Have we seen so much as one porcupine in these parts for years? Not one! Proof enough that Mr. Ocax is holding up hi end of the bargain." Hmmm, as if the fact that they've never seen a porcupine witnesses to the reality of Mr. Ocax's protection.
By far though, my kids' favorite character was the porcupine, Ereth. He is grumpy, ornery, and can't speak without a string of namecalling. There's nothing to particularly like about him. He's not loyal. He's not kind. And the only protection he offers Poppy happens either accidentally or because it works out in his favor. But for all his prickliness (literally and figuratively), he is rather entertaining (and, in the next book, we learned some things that helped us understand and sympathize with his tough exterior a little more). Normally, I feel like I wouldn't appreciate Ereth's saucy mouth, but it's hard to say things like "bug's bathwater" or "frog flip" or "snake sweat" and not smile a little.
In Poppy and Rye, Poppy leaves her new home where her family is living happily and comfortably and sets out to find Ragweed's family. Ragweed was a golden mouse. The only thing Poppy really knows about his family is that they live on the banks of The Brook and that The Brook is on the other side of Dimwood Forest. She feels like it's her duty to find and tell them about Ragweed's untimely death. Somehow (by calling him "old," which insults him), she convinces Ereth to make the journey with her.
What Poppy doesn't know is that at the very moment she is making her way through Dimwood Forest, Ragweed's family is being forced out of their beloved home by a band of beavers who turned The Brook into a large pond. They are led by a beaver named Castor P. Canad (Cas for short). He has big ambitions. After the brook is dammed up, he and the other beavers start building lodges, which he names, "Canad's Cute Condos" (a name so catchy that I caught Bradley saying it to himself over and over again).
When Poppy arrives, the family has moved, but their new home is being threatened as well because Canad's Cute Condos are expanding. Poppy delivers her news but finds she can't just turn around and leave Ragweed's family. Something unexpected has happened to her: she has fallen in love with Ragweed's younger brother, Rye, and she knows she has to help him and his family reclaim their home.
If Mr. Ocax was a classic villain, Castor P. Canad is the opposite. On the surface, he seems nice. Full of motivational speeches, his motto is "Progress Without Pain." He pretends to stick to that, but really, he just wants to give the appearance of being a nice guy so that he can expand his business without any trouble.
I have to say that even though we shouldn't have liked Mr. Canad, we couldn't help ourselves. His sections were some of our favorites because his speeches were so funny. His favorite expression is, "Well, bless my teeth and smooth my tail," and my boys laughed every time he said it. Mr. Canad has a habit of speaking in cliches (which furthers his disingenuous personality), and this speech (made to the other beavers to inspire and motivate them) was probably our favorite one of the book. At any rate, it's the one we memorized and have been repeating whenever we need a laugh:
"All right then. . . . Don't have to remind you, there's work to be done. I'll be by your side. Don't want to hear about any beaver who isn't busy. Hang in there. Be fresh as a daisy. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And finally, from the bottom of my heart, and from the top, as well as the sides and also the middle, I want to say to you all, and I mean this, really, I do, with all my soul, honestly, sincerely, have a nice day!"It helped that I landed upon the perfect voice for Mr. Canad, which made his speeches even more fun to read aloud. I love it when that happens. So yes, he's still a villain but very atypical, which makes the whole situation fresh and interesting.
I will say that this book has quite a bit of romance in it (first, Poppy mourns the love of her life, Ragweed, then meets the mysterious Rye whom she dances with before she even knows about his relation to Ragweed, and finally we find out Ereth is actually in love with Poppy, too). These chapters were probably my boys' least favorites (and there seemed to be a lot of them), but the action in between kept them going, and the final battle between the mice and beavers ("The Battle of the Boulder") was so thrilling and exciting, it made up for every boring love scene before it.
Speaking of the battle, that was one of my favorite parts of the book too, but not for the same reason as Aaron, Max, and Bradley. Early in the story, you get the impression that Clover and Valerian (Ragweed and Rye's parents) are unwilling to put their family at risk by resisting anything. Consequently, they're being pushed around like they're nobody. But finally, one night, something snaps and then clicks and they decide to stop giving in to Mr. Canad. They come up with an elaborate plan to destroy the dam, and they pull it off beautifully.
The thing I love about the battle is that Poppy and Rye aren't even a part of it because they're trapped inside the Lodge at the time. Poppy still has many moments of bravery, but I just really loved seeing Rye's family step up and deliver instead of just being rescued by Poppy (although, if it hadn't been for her arrival, they never would have found the courage to make the first move).
I'm as bad at finishing series with my kids as I am with finishing them myself. We have our so many that we're in the middle of, and this just adds one more to the pile. Still though, we are looking forward to coming back to Dimwood Forest in a little while after we've read a few other books. In some ways, it's nice to not read all the books in one bang. It makes them last longer, and it's always fun to know we have tried and true friends we can return to.