~ A Book Review: I Was a Rat! Philip Pullman ~

Posted: April 29, 2021 in book review, Book reviewing, books, childhood, children's writing, creativity, Fiction, kids, Middle Grade, readers, Story, words, Writing
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I’ve finished reading my eighth novel for 2021, I Was a Rat! … or The Scarlet Slippers, by Philip Pullman. This book is one of the author’s shorter works for children which ‘for want of a better term’ he called fairy tales. Although Pullman found these shorter stories very enjoyable, he also admits to finding them ‘immensely difficult to write.’ I’m not surprised, as his books are typically dense with meaning. I was a Rat is multi dimensional with astute observation of people at its core. This small book is such a tidy mouthful I finished it in one sitting. Yet the ripples set in motion by the pebble in the pond continued long afterward. It’s one to get you thinking.

A young boy turns up one night on the doorstep of Bob the cobbler and his wife, Joan, a couple who had always longed for a child. The boy, whom they name Roger, insists he used to be a rat. The couple give him shelter and food. Roger is earnest and confused, unsure how to act like a boy, but every day the couple teach him patiently and Roger tries his best to learn. Bob and Joan go to the police, the hospital, and an orphanage, trying to find a place for Roger, but no one wants him. The old couple next try sending the boy to school, but Roger is not quite tame enough and runs afoul of the teacher. One mishap after another befall poor Roger, who by now is becoming infamous in the village and beyond, as a freak.

Along with the unfolding drama, we get regular updates on the front page of the local newspaper, The Daily Scourge, and the articles continue to pop up throughout the book. Though published in 1999, I Was a Rat is an unblinking meditation on the power of the press (social media) today.

As the innocent Roger becomes demonized by the newspapers, and the public opinion builds around the negative imagery provided, Roger becomes popularly regarded as a monster and they line him up for the death penalty. This reveals the ugly side of the press, bearing parallels with today’s social media trolls and the gang-banging that often happens around those poor souls who fall foul of popular opinion and have the misfortune to become blacklisted. Mob mentality is an almost too real a theme. Yet, the book never really gets bogged down in worthiness or making a point. I Was a Rat can still make us laugh and be funny.

As the story unfolds, we get the twist, the key to understanding our boy who says he was a rat. And we realize how imaginative this tale truly is, being in fact, the follow up to a world famous fairy tale, giving us an alternative view. The story premise is not only intelligent, it’s different. One feels as if the author took a leap out of the box and it paid off.

Philip Pullman was born in England in 1946. A teacher most of his life, he is also the author of twenty books for children. He is best known for the trilogy His Dark Materials, beginning with Northern Lights in 1995, continuing with The Subtle Knife in 1997, and concluding with The Amber Spyglass in 2000. His books have earned Pullman the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, and they gave him the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (the first time in the prize’s history that they gave it to a children’s book). Pullman was the 2002 recipient of the Eleanor Farjeon Award for children’s literature. And in 2005 he won the Astrid Lindgren Award.

Reading I was a Rat was a curious experience for me. While I wasn’t sure what was happening, the quality of the writing sucked me in and kept me turning the pages, anyway. Packed into the light volume are many levels of meaning. It’s one of those books where it is possible to enjoy it at face value and also plumb the depths for more meaning. I loved the subtle morality. “See, I don’t think it’s what you ARE that matters. I think it’s what you DO.” We learn not to “… go by surface appearances. It was what lay underneath that mattered.” In I Was a Rat, Pullman reminds us that, just as with his wonderful stories, beauty is more than skin deep.

My rating: Three and a half stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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In the pleasures that literature affords us, we may see immediately that tomorrow does not have to be like today. Such immediacy makes free. ~ Charles Hallisey

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Comments
  1. Is it actually suitable for children? Sounds more like a young adult (teens). I’m always looking for good reads for my grandchildren. Thanks, Yvette! You give such great reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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