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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Little Rat Sets Sail written by Monika Bang-Campbell; illus. by Molly Bang
Harcourt, 2002 48p
ISBN 0-15-216297-6 $14.00 Gr. 2-3

It’s been a couple of good months for literary daughters: last month the Bulletin Big Picture featured Small, by Clara Vulliamy, daughter of Shirley Hughes, and this month we’re focusing on a glorious team effort by Monika Bang-Campbell and her mother, Molly Bang. They’ve turned their attention to that perennially difficult genre, the easy reader, and the result is a witty and understanding outing that should make quite a splash.

Right off, readers will recognize Little Rat’s parental-caused pickle: “Little Rat did not have a choice about sailing lessons. Her parents just signed her up.” Far from being an old or even a wannabe salt, she is afraid of everything connected with boats and water (“She was scared of the water. She was scared of falling in. She was scared of falling in even with her life jacket on”) and ill at ease among her eager classmates (“Little Rat felt like a dork. She wanted to go home”). Fortunately, instructor Buzzy Bear gives Little Rat a helping paw and allows her to proceed at her own pace, so that even if she doesn’t sail a pram solo like her gung-ho cohorts, she manages to work through some of her fears, acquire some skills, and even enjoy herself a bit on the bounding main.

The rodent-sailor theme may recall Stuart Little, but Bang-Campbell is dealing with a very different kind of mariner here in reluctant Little Rat. The text treats her reservations with a brisk sympathy (“She was embarrassed the others would think she was a fraidy cat. Little Rat WAS a fraidy cat”) while touching understandingly on the multiplicity of anxieties a fish out of water—or a rat nearly in it—can have: every new detail, instruction, or action makes Little Rat more certain that she’s in over her head, and worse, in over her head alone. Readers will warm to the heroine’s wry and skeptical outlook (“‘Only one person can fit in a pram. You get to sail them by yourself.’ Buzzy Bear said this like it was a good thing”), and they’ll appreciate both the pithy offhandedness of the text and the realistic groundedness to her growth: she never saves anybody or even sails solo, instead achieving success on her own terms. The story’s separation into five easy chapters helps struggling readers achieve success on their terms, too, and sailing terminology is as clear as it needs to be in context (a diagram helps the uninitiated with the points of the boat).

Bang’s well-trimmed illustrations don’t luff for a minute: she’s got a nice line in watercolor seascapes in gleaming cobalt blue, accented by flotillas of crisp-sailed boats and seen from a variety of imaginative perspectives (youngsters will certainly understand Little Rat’s alarm at her heeling craft). The amiable little critters (all safely ensconced in life vests) are cuddly yet realistically drafted, with a Garth Williams flair, and telling details abound: the skunk pair, clearly siblings, peer inquiringly off the dock at their own reflections, the bunnies’ ears stream in the breeze, and the opossum floats comfortably on his back, all under the comforting supervision of enormous Buzzy Bear. Little Rat’s obvious discomfiture, whether she’s anxiously fiddling with her pink tail or hanging back from the enthusiastic crowd, is both amusingly and tenderly depicted, especially in imagined scenes visualizing her worst fears (such as an overhead shot of a solitary Little Rat, adrift as jellyfish and “slimy eels” encircle her boat). Reassuringly, however, there are also views of Little Rat coming to enjoy her new milieu, throwing her minimal weight into hoisting the centerboard and leaping off the bow with something approaching gusto.

The book pleasingly shares this gusto; amid the comforting treatment of anxiety are some seductive nautical touches that capably convey the joys of messing about in boats (“The salt left white powder all over her fur”), of developing competence (“Little Rat held the tiller as the boat sailed forward”), and of passing milestones (“She had made it to the last day of sailing lessons!”). Reading a good book can offer youngsters some of those joys as well, and they’ll enjoy embarking on literary and maritime adventures in this seaworthy little craft.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Molly Bang from Little Rat Sets Sail ©2002. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2002.