Pullman, P. (1999). I Was a Rat! New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
An older couple, Bob and Joan, never managed to have children and they can't resist taking in the strange and innocent nameless boy in a pageboy outfit who stands outside their front door, insisting he was a rat. The boy certainly has rat like behavior: He shreds his bed sheets, scratches and gnaws on objects and needs to be told how to use the bathroom. Bob and Joan are fond of the boy and name him Roger, but decide they must do the right thing by trying to find the right place for him. They try city hall, the police, an orphanage, school. As news spreads around town of the strange boy, a man who works in a fair, hopes to acquire a rat-boy as one of his freaks.
I Was a Rat! actually begins with a newspaper article, exploring how a mysterious beautiful woman has captured the heart of the kingdom's prince. As the mysterious girl interests people through more newspaper articles. The only person who seems to have any knowledge of who the supposed princess is happens to be Roger.
On a slightly strange note, I was happy that Pullman included the detail of Roger needing to be shown where to go to the bathroom. It may be silly, but I like it when books don't ignore these necessary experiences that characters new to being human have.
Much of this story serves as a critique of a number of adult occupations (including the police, social services, physicians, the press, etc.) and their failure to help Roger. While entertaining, I Was a Rat! doesn't seem to be up to Pullman's usual quality of writing. Also, since there are many British terms throughout the book, a teacher may have to be ready to explain the differences in language.
Since the idea of Wild children is briefly mentioned in this book, a teacher could describe that concept, using The Jungle Book or The Graveyard Book as examples. Since it's addressed in the story, a teacher could lead students in a discussion of the history of the use of and a debate over corporal punishment.
Because Roger often lacks knowledge about experiences people don't think twice about, a teacher could use this as an opportunity to discuss being culturally sensitive to people from different cultures or backgrounds. Another option would be to discuss the experience of being torn between two cultures. Other issues include prejudice and questions over who or what are trustworthy sources of information.
Quotes of Note:
"Old Bob and his wife, Joan, lived by the market in the house where his father and grandfather and great-grandfather had lived before him, cobblers all of them, and cobbling was Bob's trade too, Joan was a washerwoman, like her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother, back as far as anyone could remember" (p. 3).
"Bless my soul!" said Bob. "Who are you?"
"I was a rat," said the little boy.
"What did you say?" said Joan, crowding in behind her husband.
"I was a rat, the little boy said again" (p. 4).
"What's your name?" he said.
"Haven't got a name."
"Why, everyone's got a name! I'm Bob, and this is Joan, and that's who we are, see. You sure you haven't got a name?"
"I lost it. I forgot it. I was a rat," said the boy, as if that explained everything" (pp. 4-5).
"Now get your pencils," said Mrs. Cribbins, "and we'll do some arithmetic."
Roger didn't have a pencil, of course, or he'd have eaten it already. so he just watched as the other children took out theirs, and he knew he'd learned another work: arithmetic meant snack" (p. 32).