"Bless my soul!" said Bob. "Who are you?"
"I was a rat," said the little boy.
When a grubby young pageboy knocks on the door of Bob the cobbler and Joan the washerwoman's house, the kindly couple hardly knows what to think. Could this delusional boy be the answer to their prayers for a little one of their own? And was he really once a rat? It seems so. He shreds his bedding, for example, and he chews his toast swiftly with his front teeth. He eats an entire pencil and bites his teacher. Despite the fact that he is a little ratty in his habits, the old couple grow quite fond of the young fellow.
In time, the word spreads that there's a rat-boy in town, news that intrigues everyone from the Royal Philosopher to the P.T. Barnum-inspired freak-peddler Oliver Tapscrew to a reporter from the local rag The Daily Scourge. As the harmless, well-meaning boy is transformed into "The Monster of the Sewers" through pure sensationalism and mass hysteria, Philip Pullman playfully satirizes the power of the press and society at large.
What does it mean to be human? In this often darkly comic Dickensian tale, rats start to look pretty good by comparison. But in a fairy-tale ending, Bob and Joan teach us that humans, corrupt as we are, can always take solace in toasted cheese, love, and good craftsmanship. Kevin Hawkes's black-and-white illustrations enliven the already vivacious adventure that, thanks to Pullman's ever lovely wordplay and sly satire, is every bit as enjoyable for adults as it is for young readers. (Ages 9 to 12) --Karin Snelson
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From Publishers Weekly
The latest offering from Pullman (The Golden Compass; Count Karlstein) is a witty romp with fairy-tale roots. "I was a rat!" claims the boy in a tattered page's uniform who appears at the door of a kindly shoemaker and his washerwoman wife. Bob and Joan take in the boy, teach him table manners, name him Roger and do their best to provide for him. But this wouldn't be satire if the makeshift family were simply to live happily ever after--and so begins a series of misadventures in which Roger (wildly unworldly and more than a little "ratty in his habits") is kicked out of school, appears as an exhibit in a traveling freak show, falls in with a Dickensian band of young burglars and ends up imprisoned and condemned to death as the so-called "Monster of the Sewers." Providing a hilariously overblown (but ultimately chilling) commentary on the doings of Roger and others are excerpts from the Daily Scourge, an utterly shameless tabloid. The author brings about the de rigueur happy ending when Roger's life is spared, thanks both to Bob and Joan's steadfastness and the intervention of a certain newly wed princess, whose cameo appearance reveals the truth about Roger's origins (astute readers will pick up on the early clues). Pullman provides poignant insight into a well-known fairy tale and insinuates its implications for today's readers. Ages 8-10.
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