Bookworm is a feature whereby I follow a trail of children’s books – linking them by author, illustrator, subject or any other random connection that takes my fancy.
I remember reading this when I was about 9. When I say, I remember reading it, I remember that I did read it, and that I enjoyed it. But I couldn’t remember a single thing about the plot until I picked it up again a couple of days ago.
Basically, a bunch of rats living in a wharf in New York are under threat of being poisoned. They figure out that if they spend the year collecting coins from the streets, they can pay enough money in ‘rent’ to the owner of the land, and he will leave them be. When the owner’s son takes over, and once again starts spreading out poison, the rats have to come up with a way of finding even more money to save themselves and their home.
It’s a nice idea, and it generally works pretty well. The illustrations are lovely and detailed, if a little on the dark side sometimes – and there are plenty of them. The story is simple enough to follow, and it has a bit for everyone. The overlooked and friendless sewer rat who becomes the hero of the piece, the posh but spunky girl rat he’s in love with, and some comic relief in the form of his slightly mangy uncle and his pack-rat servant. It is a very gentle story – there isn’t too much in the way of peril or fast paced action, so it’s ideal for younger readers. Slightly older kids, or ones who enjoy a bit more in terms of action or comedy might find it a bit on the dull side.
It has had comparisons with Charlotte’s Web – in fact, there’s a quote on the jacket which says it “may well do for Rats what Charlotte’s Web has done for spiders”. It does do a good job of immersing you in the world of rats and making you a bit sympathetic to their plight.
However, the rats are humanised – they live in houses filled with ‘furniture’ and appreciate art. There is even a social hierarchy, with posh rats living in the nicer areas of the wharf, and acting as councillors in the ‘democratsy’,whilst generally looking down on those who live in the sewers and ‘make things with their paws’. Charlotte’s Web got me to cry about a spider, without making her anything more than a spider. And it lived with me for a looooonnnngg time after I read it (and still does), whereas clearly I forgot a Rat’s Tale almost as soon as I’d read it. So really there’s no comparison. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it though. It’s well worth a read.