“Ma’s Riches” is a short story about a mouse family, written in the style of a fairy tale; it is in the third-person point of view. The Lily family, consisting of Ma Lily, Da Lily, and twin girls Corn and Day, is very poor. To make their situation worse, they live on dry, cracked ground. Because Day Lily has a bad leg, however, they are unable to make the journey to a richer, more fertile land. One day, the Lily family hears that the royal family plans to pay a visit to every mouse’s house; they are very nervous to receive them in their humble home. And indeed, the royal family is snobby and scornful of their poverty. But Ma Lily defends their life and her home, claiming she is richer than the royal family because she loves her family and is happy.
What makes this world believable?
Part of successful world-building is having confidence, as a writer, in the world you are building! As a narrator, Fiona Clare Altschuler, 11, possesses an assuredness that is immediately apparent in the straightforward, declarative sentences that open the story:
Corn Lily and Day Lily lived several miles from an abundant wood. They were twin mice, and their family was very poor.
Altschuler’s choice of words also contributes to our sense of this world as a real place; her narrator does not seem to come from our world but from the Lilys’. An example of this is the way she describes Ma Lily’s cursed plants: “the plants died before they were knee-high to a splinter.”
Detail is the backbone of a believable world, and Altschuler’s story is filled with it—from the mother who plants seeds that are destined to die in the dry ground every year to the father who walks hours every day to the abundant wood to collect nuts and the rich description of the royal family’s clothing and bearing:
The rich robes the royal family wore were fringed with rubies and emeralds. Queen Birch’s paws shone with rings, and a golden crown lay on King Straw’s head. Corn Lily was amazed by their fine garments, and self-consciously glanced down at her plain, russet gown. Then the little mouse peered past the jewels and fine silk and studied the king, queen, and prince’s faces. They didn’t look happy, she realized. The queen’s ears drooped, the king’s eyes were dark with gloom, and the prince’s brow was wrinkled in a sulky frown. She wondered how they could be so sad when they were so rich.
- One challenge of building a believable world when your protagonists are not human is creating details specific to the species that they are. How does the writer incorporate mouse-specific details to help readers believe not only in the reality of the world, but in the reality of its characters?
- How does the writer incorporate backstory and context into the narrative?
Corn Lily and Day Lily lived several miles from an abundant wood. They were twin mice, and their family was very poor. They lived in a small burrow, poorly furnished, on dry, cracked ground. Their mother planted little seeds every year, but the plants died before they were knee-high to a splinter. Their father walked for many hours beneath the blazing sun to gather nuts where the grass was lush and the trees tall and fruitful. But he was often exhausted by the time he got there, and never had enough time or strength to pick enough acorns and hazelnuts for his family. Day Lily and Corn Lily worked very hard, but still they were never properly fed or clothed.
They might have moved to richer ground if it were not for one thing. Day Lily was very quiet and sickly, and one of her hind legs was crooked, and she walked with a limp. She couldn’t walk all that far, and a journey to suitable land would take a day at the very least. Although thin and light, she was much too heavy to carry for hours on end. Corn Lily was different. She was strong and outgoing, and a great help to her parents.
“Oh, Ma,” Day Lily said tremulously one day, while sewing a shabby apron for Corn Lily.
“Yes, my darling Day Lily?” Ma said quietly, catching sight of her daughter’s face.
“If it weren’t for me, we might have moved to richer ground. It’s because of me we’re so poor,” the little mouse whispered, tears in her soft brown eyes. “But I’m just a burden. Just a b-burden!”
“Oh, you aren’t a burden. Look at your sewing. And you cook and knit wonderfully. You aren’t a burden. Don’t cry, child.”
Suddenly Corn Lily ran in.
“Ma, Ma!” she cried in excitement. “King Straw, Queen Birch, and little Prince Barberry are coming! They are stopping at every mouse’s house, and that includes us!”
“Good rivers!” Ma gasped.
“Oh, Corn Lily!” Day Lily shouted, leaping up and grabbing her sister’s paws.
Just then, Da slipped into the little burrow. “What’s all the noise?” he asked.
“Slope, the king, queen, and prince are coming!” Ma told him breathlessly.
“Oh, Poppy!” Da said. He smiled in amazement, and then his smile faded slowly.
“Da, what’s wrong?” Day Lily asked.
“Oh, they’ll scorn us,” he sighed. “The royal family is proud. And they’ll scorn us for being poor.”
“Oh, Da, they wouldn’t scorn someone who works so hard!” Day Lily cried, flinging her arms around Da’s neck.
“Or someone who’s so nice like you, Da,” Corn Lily shouted.
“I don’t believe anyone in the world has such wonderful daughters,” Da said.
* * *
Three days later, there was a brisk knock on the door. Corn Lily opened the door and gasped, giving a hasty bow. Day Lily looked up from her knitting and scrambled to her feet.
“H-hello—I mean, Your Majesty,” Corn Lily stuttered.
“Please, d-do come in.” Day Lily said, self-consciously aware that every mouse was staring at her crooked leg. “I-I’ll go get Ma. W-wait here, please.”
She hobbled as fast as she could to Ma’s room.
“What’s wrong, child?” Ma asked.
“Oh, Ma, they’re here! King Straw and Queen Birch and Prince Barberry, Ma!” Day Lily said.
“Great rushing rivers!” Ma said breathlessly, running to the door and smoothing her fur.
King Straw came in first, looking sniffily around at the humble burrow and the shabby mice who lived in it. Queen Birch followed, fussing over Prince Barberry, who just kept goggling at Day Lily’s crooked leg. She felt herself getting hotter and hotter. The rich robes the royal family wore were fringed with rubies and emeralds. Queen Birch’s paws shone with rings, and a golden crown lay on King Straw’s head. Corn Lily was amazed by their fine garments, and self-consciously glanced down at her plain, russet gown. Then the little mouse peered past the jewels and fine silk and studied the king, queen, and prince’s faces. They didn’t look happy, she realized. The queen’s ears drooped, the king’s eyes were dark with gloom, and the prince’s brow was wrinkled in a sulky frown. She wondered how they could be so sad when they were so rich.
“Sit down, Your Majesty.” Ma said, flustered.
They didn’t sit.
“Where’s your husband?” King Straw asked importantly.
“Away, sire, gathering acorns. Hazelnuts too,” Ma answered, nervous at the seriousness in the king’s tone.
“Surely acorns wouldn’t grow here?” the queen said. Somehow, the surprise in her tone made Corn Lily angry. The queen knew no acorns grew here. She had asked it just out of spite!
“No, my lady. He walks many hours to gather them,” Ma murmured.
“He works hard?”
“Oh, Sire,” Day Lily said suddenly. “Da works very hard. Very hard indeed.”
“You say he works hard,” King Straw said snidely. “But then why are you so very poor?”
Ma stood a little taller. “Oh, Sire, I have to say I’m much, much richer than you are.”
“You are, are you?” The king smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. It was a smirk, and it made Corn Lily even angrier.
Prince Barberry giggled, pointed at Ma, and whispered something in the queen’s ear. Corn Lily clenched her paws tight.
“Yes,” Ma answered. “I am. But not in money, Sire. In joy. My daughters and my husband and the beauty of the sunset bring me so much joy that I am richer than you—hundreds of times richer. Oh, yes, Sire. Hundreds of times richer. If joy were money, this house would be so full we wouldn’t have room to get in. If joy were money, it would overflow this shabby burrow and fill the world. And so I am much, much richer than you are. Riches do not buy happiness, Sire.”
King Straw was speechless. He struggled for a retort, then, looking angry and embarrassed, swept Queen Birch and Prince Barberry away. As they left, the prince was still staring at Day Lily, but for once, she didn’t mind.
When they were gone, Day Lily and Corn Lily leapt onto Ma, hugging her fiercely and feeling richer than the richest king.