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The Highway Rat

“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.

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That Pesky Rat

There is no-one quite like Lauren Child.  Her unique style of illustration, part drawing, part collage, lends itself brilliantly to this heartwarming tale of a homeless, nameless rat in search of an owner.

The rat has no name, so people just call him ‘that pesky rat’.  He lives in dustbin number 3, Grubby Alley, and sleeps in a Hula Hoop packet with a used teabag as a pillow.  Desperate for a name (and an owner) he visits his friends to work out what kind of lifestyle would suit him.  Pierre the chinchilla has too many baths.  Oscar the cat spends too much time on his own.  The rat doesn’t fancy walking the tightrope like Nibbles the rabbit, and Miss St.Clair dresses Andrew the Scottish Terrier in a hat and coat.  However, as the rat says, if wearing a jumper means he gets an owner ‘I would do anything to be somebody’s pet’.

Eventually he goes to the pet shop to be gently told that people don’t generally adopt brown rats off of the street.  But he writes a (hilarious, beautifully conceived) notice and puts it in the window.  And waits.

The rat is a loveable, charming protagonist – a streetwise street rat with a hard nose and a soft centre. Child’s drawings are typically full of character and humour is conveyed by both the pictures and the text.  The patient rat waits in the pet shop on a stool three times his height with his little feet dangling in midair like a toddler.  Nibbles the circus rabbit has career-related stress: “sometimes I could with leaving off the clown’s nose and putting my feet up.”  And the rat wonders if his aversion to baths is based in an allergy to soap.

There is a lot to discuss in this book, too.   Why is the rat homeless? Why do people judge him? More philosophical children may be able to handle questions like why the rat wants a name. Talk about the different houses he visits – where would you want to live and why?  You could even branch out to arts and crafts and make your own collage of the rat in his bin, or make his pet shop advert.

That Pesky Rat has a happy ending with a genuinely funny twist.  It is an absolute delight to read, look at and share.  And if you needed any more convincing, it is now part of UNESCO’s Programme for the Education of Children in Need; buy a special copy of That Pesky Rat and all profits from both author and publisher go to the Programme.  Have a look at My Life is a Story for more details.

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The Great Pet Sale

“In the window was a rat.  I looked at him.  Half of his whiskers were missing. ‘I’m a bargain!’ called the rat through the glass.  ‘I’m only 1p! Choose me!’

This wonderful first person picture book is the story of a boy who goes to the pet shop sale.  The basic structure is a list of all the animals on sale and how much they cost, but some witty presentation and a running commentary from the desperate rat make this a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Bamboozled by the prospect of a salamander (6p) a skink (7p) and a gecko (8p) the boy asks, “Which one is which?” “Nobody knows! Nobody cares!” says the rat.  “Sausages on legs! You don’t want one of those!”  The animals in this pet sale are all remarkably cheap, especially the Komodo dragon which retails at a staggering 25p, for reasons which become clear at the end of the story.

This is a delightful book with flaps and a final pop-up which will be enjoyed by adult and child alike. (I defy anyone not to laugh at the cardboard box of ‘assorted little brown creatures’, 10p the lot.)  Reading this you could discuss which animals you might like to take home, and which ones (surely the Komodo dragon?!) you might leave in the shop.  With older children you could talk about the rat and why he is so keen to be bought, as well as playing numeracy games adding together the total price for the different animals.

Mick Inkpen has written a large number of highly regarded picture books but this relatively unknown little gem is up there with the best of them.