“The Highway Rat was a baddie,
The Highway Rat was a beast,
He took what he wanted and ate what he took,
His life was one long feast”
Julia Donaldson has borrowed from Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwayman for this tale of a rodent robber and his endless quest for junk food. The galloping cadences echo the horse’s hooves and, as in the original, make this easy to read aloud and give it an urgent, pacey feel. The Highway Rat robs travellers on the road – not for money, but for food. He seeks out cakes, biscuits, puddings, lollies, and chocolates, although the animals he holds up are only able to provide him with a bunch of clover, a bag of nuts and a leaf. Undismayed he continues his pillaging and “the creatures who travelled the highway / Grew thinner and thinner and thinner / While the Highway Rat grew horribly fat / From eating up everyone’s dinner”. Fortunately a ‘plucky young duck’ has a cunning plan to end the Highway Rat’s reign of terror.
There are a few briliant moments in this story. The Highway Rat’s demands come across well through the verses and are fluently and cleverly expressed. Stereotypical phrases such as ‘stand and deliver’ and ‘who goes there?’ are also worked in nicely. Ultimately however The Highway Rat feels weak, especially in comparison to Donaldson’s other books. Axel Scheffler’s drawings are as accomplished as ever and the rhymes work fairly well, but the ending of the book is awkward and unconvincing – it does not evolve naturally from the rest of the story.
A morality tale of a dessert-hungry rat getting his just desserts, The Highway Rat deserves a reading, but not, perhaps, a space on the bookshelf.