Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett with illustrations by Ann James, 60 pp, RL 1.5

While Betsy Bird calls Sonya Hartnett and Ann James' Sadie and Ratz weird and like nothing else on the shelf, she also says that "it happens to be pretty much the best book for kids published in America in the year 2012." This children's librarian and book reviewer reads (and has read) lots of kids books and she said this about Sadie and Ratz a mere four months into the year. While this is only the second book of Harnett's I have yet to read, her book The Midnight Zoo was amazing beyond words and I knew that I would read every book she has written and continues to write for as long as it takes. Another great reviewer and ardent lover of kid's books I often turn to for information and inspiration, Julie Danielson, reviewed  Sadie and Ratz for Kirkus Reviews and spoke eloquently of Harnett's ability to tackle overwhelming themes like "love (or a lack thereof), loss, the innocence and vulnerability of children, and the emotional damage that can occur to them when neglected" in powerful, beautiful meaningful ways that leave you in "awe that someone is capable of writing that good." Having read only two of Hartnett's books at this point, I feel like I can agree completely with Danielson's statement. I have often heard (or read) reviewers and readers complain about the serious, sometimes depressing nature of some of the realistic fiction that wins the Newbery year after year, and the subject matter of Hartnett's books could often fall under that umbrella, however the way that she writes about these things, the characters she creates, are different and, while still dark, somehow uplifting for the truth that she shares with readers. And Harnett's books are truly Newbery worthy, but not eligible since she's Australian.

I read Sadie and Ratz a couple of months ago but could not figure out how to write about it. I feel as though anything I say here will be overly simplified and reductive of the powerful in intriguing nature of this very short book that can be read by and emerging reader. However, while this is a book that a new reader might enjoy more on his or her own, it is also a book that is a great conversation starter between parents and children. I definitely suggest that, if your child reads it alone, you also read it and talk about it.

Sadie and Ratz is a book about a little girl, Hannah, who has named her hands Sadie and Ratz.  Hannah likes "purple, ladybirds, ponies, soft toys with sad eyes" and, when she is kind she likes to, "tickle Dad's ear, stroke Mom's hair, wobble Grandma's stomach." Hannah has named her hands Sadie and Ratz and, as Dad says (and as the cover art illustrates), they behave like wild beasts. Sadie and Ratz like,

crunching, squishing, squeezing. They also like piranhas. Sadie is the boss. She is the same size as Ratz, but she is meaner. When Sadie grows up she wants to e a dragon. When Ratz grows up he wants to be a bigger Ratz. Ratz does what Sadie tells him to do. Together, they make a good team. This is what they like to do: crush things up, twist and scrunch, scratch! scratch! scratch! When Sadie and Ratz are on the rampage, look out! There is someone in our house I forgot to mention. Baby Boy. I wish he was a dog. Baby Boy is four years old. Four years is a long time. It seems like Baby Boy has been around forever. Everyone says Baby Boy is a good boy. But these are the things that Baby Boy does: goes into my room, changes the TV channel, uses all the colored markers. When he does these things Sadie and Ratz wake up!

I realize that was a very long passage to quote. It actually takes up eight illustrated pages of the book but also is a perfect example of the subject matter Hartnett is dealing with and the brilliance with which she presents it. Besides feeling like I could not do justice to this book in my review, I also didn't know how to deal with what I have dubbed the "Where the Wild Things Are Factor." As a bookseller, over the last 17 years I have encountered the occasional parent or grandparent who finds Sendak's book inappropriate or unacceptable reading material because it shows a child misbehaving. On a deeper level, I think they are uncomfortable acknowledging that all children have a dark side and that they like to be mean sometimes and Sendak's book is one of the rare picture books that captures this and presents it in a nonjudgmental, non-didactic fashion. Noting the similarities, Betsy Bird notes in her review, that there is a streak in children that "understands jealousy and cruelty and that is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the children in books who exhibit those same qualities. Max in Where the Wild Things Are embraces his worst aspects at the story's beginning, is punished, and then builds his own world where he has the power. Hannah is similarly punished when she gives in to her darkest feelings but her fantasy lies not with another world but within her own body." Bird's quote perfectly, succinctly captures the complexity both of the book and childhood.

However, Sadie and Ratz is not just a book about dark feelings and how to deal with them, although in one of my favorite parts of the book Hannah's mom suggests that Sadie and Ratz might learn to relax and be patient by doing yoga. Ann James' beautiful illustrations show Sadie and Ratz trying "Snowflakes in Winter," "Starfish," and "The Rambling River." However, Sadie and Ratz invented their own yoga positions, "The Lion's Mane," "The Hammerheads," and "Long Lightening Bolts," which, while not depicted sound equally brilliant. The real crux of Sadie and Ratz is Hannah's relationship with Baby Boy. Another absolutely perfect book for siblings that I have also seen suffer the "Where the Wild Things Are Factor" is Kevin Henkes' Julius, Baby of the World, in which Lily is very excited about her brother before he arrives but genuinely not so keen on him once he is born. When trying to sell this book to adults looking for a new sibling book, they often express the fear that Henkes' book will introduce feelings that might not otherwise be there or inspire children to act on feelings. I maintain that these feelings are there, no matter how sweet your child is. Jealousy is a natural human emotion and it's better to get it out and talk about it than avoid it. As with "Where the Wild Things Are, I find myself most frustrated by the adults who discount a child's ability to be exposed to and make sense of emotions on a page that they are definitely experiencing in their own lives, whether they are aware of it or not.

Hannah definitely terrorizes Baby Boy with Sadie and Ratz, but by the second chapter of Sadie and Ratz Baby Boy has figured out a way to retaliate. As Hannah says, "On Saturday, at our house, something strange happened. I was drawing pictures, and Baby Boy was wandering around. Suddenly marker was on the wall. It was a long black line on the clean white wall." Baby Boy says Sadie and Ratz are to blame. When her parents believe Baby Boy, Hannah finds she has a lot of thinking to do. She even sends them on vacation. But when her only pet, a stick insect named Pin, is missing a leg Hannah is distraught, especially when Baby Boy accuses Sadie and Ratz. Hannah's parents allow for strange bug behavior and don't punish Baby Boy or Sadie and Ratz. I especially love how Hartnett presents the parents in Sadie and Ratz. As the parent of a daughter and son, we went through a brief period misbehaving hands and it is so hard to get any straight version of what actually happened out of a young child. This is reflected in Hartnett's writing and the way that the parents try to handle discord as judiciously as possible. I especially love how Hartnett ends Sadie and Ratz. When a clock turns up broken, Baby Boy tries to blame Sadie and Ratz, but it is pretty clear that he is responsible. Not just for the clock, but for the string of mishaps blamed on Sadie and Ratz. As this realization dawns on the family, the all "looked down at Baby Boy's  hands. Baby Boy smiled like a happy, crazy monkey. 'Oh dear,' said Dad. 'Oh dear,' said Mom. 'Hooray!' I said. Because when Sadie and Ratz came home from vacation, they were going to meet two new friends. Baby Boy said their names were Colin and Scraps."

Ultimately, this ending is probably yet another reason that parents may shy away from this book. But, for me as a parent and as some one who values a good children's book, I think Hartnett's ending is honest and hopeful. Colin and Scraps might mean the coming of even more friction and fighting in the house, but they could also herald a new era of understanding between siblings and parents as well as a new way to talk with both children about their feelings. As a read out loud or a read alone, there is so much on so many levels to be gathered from Sadie and Ratz and I hope that parents will not shy away from, as Julie Danielson says in her review, this "real slice of family life, the sweet with the bitter."

For a bit more of Ann James art, click here: 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast
For Danielson's interview with Hartnett from 2007, click here.

Source: Review Copy from Publisher

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While in Australia I discovered books by Pamela Allen. She is a wildly popular picture book author and her books line the shelves of several generations of parents by now. All of her books are slightly subversive - some more than others and many deal with complex emotions and feelings. "Black Dog","Potato people" and whole Mr. McGee series would be a good start. She is amazing and fits your conclusion about Australian children lit. perfectly.