I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman picutres by Kevin Hawkes 164pp RL 3
One of my favorite new genres in kid's books and in adult literature is the exploration of the back stories of already famous works. Gregory Maguire, most famous for Wicked, the life story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, has done the same for the stories of Snow White, Cinderella. Most recently, his book for kids, What the Dickens, follows the life of a rogue tooth fairy. In teen fiction, Frank Beddor is following in Maguire's footsteps with his series Looking Glass Wars. This series follows Alyss Heart as she is cast out of Wonderland at age ten by her vicious Aunt Redd, adopted into a new family, befriended by Lewis Carroll and, at age twenty, returns to Wonderland to battle her aunt.
Philip Pullman follows a similar path in his bookfor kid's published in 1999, I Was A Rat! The first page of the book is an article from the tabloid of the day, The Daily Scourge, detailing the Prince's new found love, Lady Aurelia Ashington. Pages from The Daily Scourge are scattered throughout the book, providing sensational perspectives on the story of the rat who was turned into a boy in order to serve on Mary Jane's (Princess Aurelia's/Cinderella's) (pumpkin) coach. The brilliance of Pullman's book is that he takes the story of the boy who was a rat and makes it part adventure as we follow him through the grimy streets of a London-like town where he is taken advantage of by a group of young boys who provide "removal service" to the wealthy, an opportunist showman, Professor Tapscrew, who declares him a freak and puts him on display, allowing the audience to feed him garbage for a small extra fee. And, Pullman makes it part philosophical exercise as the rat boy is captured and given a trial to determine whether he should be exterminated like a vermin or cared for like a human being. And, through all this, in true fairy tale fashion, he is cared for and loved by a childless old couple, a laundress and her cobbler husband, who try to do their best for him by sending him to school, then to an interview with the Royal Philosopher and end up chasing all over town in an effort to bring him back home.
This is a great book, both for its intelligence and humor. The word play is wonderful, especially the names of the characters. The rat boy's gradual understanding of the human world and how it functions, as well as the habits and yearnings he carries with him from his life as a rat are very entertaining. But, it is the excerpts from The Daily Scourge and the way they manipulate and influence the public as well as the over arching question of what makes us human, make this book unique among its peers.
If you and your kids enjoy picture books, check out Susan Meddaugh's take on the rat tale in Cinderella's Rat.
If your child enjoyed this book (and is a girl) suggest The Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine, Volumes I and II, available in paperback. In hardcover, this same collection is sold in one volume as Fairy's Return and other Princess Tales. The author of the magnificent Ella Enchanted takes well known and obscure fairy tales and turns them on their heads. In this book, Cinderella appears as the boy who loves to invent things, Cinderellis with two mean brothers. If your child loves fairy tales this book is worth the cost of the hard cover edition.