Review of the Day: Rat Rule 79 by Rivka Galchen
I do not trust adult novelists. Not, as a general rule, when they start dipping their toes into the world of children’s literature. I am interested, in their attempts, yes, and, truth be told, I am more inclined to pick up their books than with a hitherto unknown writer. Yet time and again I am disappointed by the results. I am not saying that an adult novelist is incapable of writing well for children. Neil Gaiman seemed to figure it out. Catherynne Valente is passable. But on the whole, these authors have a very hard time transferring their talents to a younger audience. Often they try too hard, dumbing down the material, failing to respect the intelligence of the child reader. In this light Rivka Galchen is an interesting case. A novelist and writer, if you’ve read a piece in the New Yorker about a children’s book or children’s book creator, odds are Ms. Galchen was behind it. More importantly, in her new book for kids, Rat Rule 79, she deftly avoids that disrespect so many authors indulge in. This book understands children and gives them some credit for figuring out how the world works around them. It takes a great big swing and, in some ways, misses, but I’d rather read a book from someone who shoots for the moon than one that always plays it safe. Never boring. Consistently fascinating.
Fred is grumpy, but she has every reason in the world to be. If you were constantly moving to new cities with your mom you might feel the same way. So when Fred has a particularly peevish night, telling her mother she has no interest in a birthday party with kids she doesn’t even know, she has no idea what’s coming next. Certainly not that she’d see her mom walk into a glowy, magical paper lantern in their living room. Or that by following she’d find herself in a land ruled by a mysterious Rat whose rules and ultimatums are never broken or challenged. Now, armed with several new friends, Fred is setting off to free the Rat, find her mother, and see if there’s any way to return home, if you can truly call a place you’ve just moved to that.
At its heart Rat Rule 79 is falling into the old Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland format. This is, I should note, probably the most difficult kind of children’s novel to attempt. On its surface it may feel rather freeing. You drop your main character into a fairy world rife with puns or bits of wordplay (or even numbers!) and you don’t have to fret about the trappings of reality. You’ll find books like The Phantom Tollbooth that replicate this model, but that’s sort of a best-case scenario. For the most part, such a book is very very difficult to maintain. We’re talking about books where character development is not the highest of priorities and where BIG ideas are on parade for the reader’s love. The advantage of such books is that they appeal to those child readers that enjoy feeling smart and clever because they’re getting a high percentage of what the author is saying. Yet the vast majority of these kinds of stories end up fairly forgotten. For Galchen to make Rat Rule 79 in that mold, she had to feel fairly confident that this was the only way this story could possibly go down. In a weird way, you gotta respect that.
There are choices that the book made that make a lot of sense to me. The chapter headings, for one, are an infinite source of enjoyment. Here’s just a sampling: “A Sorry Chapter. The Technically True Chapter. The Other Chapter. What Does This Chapter Look Like to You? Chapter Ate. The Empty Set. Interrogative Chapter. Chapter Grue.” They go on but you get the idea. At the book’s heart, it just seems to be having a lot of fun with the material. It seems strange to say but when an adult writer is reveling in cleverness, child readers will often tap into that enjoyment too. There are her descriptions, which can say things like, “Her spotted feathers looked humbly magnificent like the seed pattern in a kiwi.” There are the moments like the one where Fred figures out how to outwit the Rat’s visiting hours by being literally “on time”. And there are the characters, the dialogue, the names and places, and the general sense that everything is going somewhere and that if you just follow long enough you might be able to get there too.
But at other times there were choices that just baffled me. Let us, for example, try to figure out what our heroine’s problem is. Fred and her mother, we are told at the start (in “Chapter Tuesday”) move from town to town for no particular reason. In the last six years they have moved five times. Ostensibly this is because Fred’s mother is a math professor. Her mom suggests they hold a birthday party and Fred isn’t interested. Soon thereafter her mother disappears into a giant lantern and Fred is determined to find her. But rather than focus on the problem of Fred having to find a home all the time, the book instead chooses to believe that the problem was Fred’s refusal to have a birthday party. She’s also, it can be said, supposed to find her mom, and there are little mysterious mom hints and clues spotted throughout the story. Indeed, when you take into account the subplot involving The Rat and her son, it seems that it would be natural for the course of the book to examine that particular relationship in some manner, however peripheral. And there is a bit of that here and there. Galchen is reaching out and attempting to grasp at some very big ideas, all wrapped up in children aging and birthdays and what it’s like for parents when their children get older. But because none of that ties into Fred’s central search, finding her mom, it feels as if the book is so close to coalescing into something brilliant, but didn’t quite get there. Which is a pity because it’s quite an enjoyable read.
For the record, I can find no flaw in the decision to tap artist Elena Megalos as the illustrator. This is, by all accounts, her first children’s book and she’s an ideal match for the material. From the charming endpapers showing an elephant dancing with an umbrella to the colors of the spot art (red, gray, black, and pink), to the little details in each of the characters (a mongoose mom wearing a sporting t-shirt and backpack), the art of Megalos is a consistent delight. In bedtime tales of this sort, art should come as a delectable treat every time it appears on a page. This art does precisely that. Tonally, it’s a perfect complement to Galchen’s particular form of levelheaded whimsy. You wouldn’t exchange the art here for anyone else’s in the world.
How much should you really demand from a children’s book? It’s a tricky question. On the one hand, I like my books for kids to be satisfying. And 90% of this book is precisely that. It’s only when you get to the end that you realize that so much here has been for naught. But then go back and read the beautiful lines. Look at the design and the art, which are so strangely satisfying. This is a gift book at its core. A book that hip adults buy for their nieces and nephews. It is also a book that sits on a shelf and is slipped off by a kid with curiosity, eschewing the other shiny books around it that look so very samey after a while. This book doesn’t look like anything but itself. It doesn’t read like anything but what it is. It is not flashy but it is weirdly engrossing. I think it could have been truly great, but there’s no shame in being merely grand. A book that bucks conformity with every pretty page. Swings big. Aims for the stars.
On shelves now.
Source: Final sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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