December 06, 2012


The Highway Rat. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Make Magic! Do Good! By Dallas Clayton. Candlewick Press. $17.99.

      Very loosely based on the quintessentially capital-R Romantic poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958), Julia Donaldson’s The Highway Rat poetically tells the tale of a possessive and verbally unkind rat who roams the road, taking food from all the animals he encounters. “Give me your pastries and puddings!/ Give me your chocolate and cake!/ For I am the Rat of the Highway,/ The Highway – the Highway –/ Yes, I am the Rat of the Highway,/ and whatever I want I take.” Actually, the rat doesn’t get the sorts of treats he wants: he gets clover, nuts, even a leaf from some ants, and although he takes everything, he cannot resist insulting the food: “This leaf is nasty and bitter./ This leaf is thin as can be,/ But I am the Rat of the Highway,/ and this leaf belongs to me!”  Of course, the point of the book is that the rat gets his comeuppance, which comes thanks to a brave duck that the rat threatens to eat. The duck instead promises the rat food from the duck’s sister, leading him to a mountain cave whose echo makes the rat think there is someone inside with all sorts of delicious food.  And when the rat goes in, the duck takes his horse and rides away, restoring the food to the other animals, leaving the rat to – well, to learn his lesson, although without the necessity of dying nobly, as does the highwayman in Noyes’ ballad.  Axel Scheffler’s illustrations add a lot to what is already a very enjoyable book – the bemusement of the rat’s patient, long-suffering horse is particularly well done – and the result is a book that is fun to read, fun to look at and just plain fun all around.

      Dallas Clayton’s poems are much more didactic. Yes, there is a lesson underlying The Highway Rat – be nice and don’t take things from other people – but it is soft-pedaled and not the primary point of the book. In contrast, the message is nearly the whole point of Make Magic! Do Good! True, there are a few poems here that are purely for fun: “Did you hear about the race?/ Hooray! I came in second place./ And second place will do just fine/ in a race to hug a porcupine.” But most of the poetry exists to urge young readers to rise above themselves in one way or another. “Try!” lists several improbable things kids can do and says that “at least/ you should try/ and fail.” And “Enemies” says “they like music/ and dancing/ and singing and laughing/ and playing a red kazoo,” which kids will find out when they make their enemies into friends. “Give Me a Try” somewhat resembles Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in asking, if a magic rope hangs from the sky, “Should I climb it?/ What if I die?/ Or what if I/ just walk on by?” In “My Bike,” the happy rider goes through “a town without hope/ that’s weighed down with despair” and offers people rides. “Mr. Pennymaker” is about what money cannot buy – “all the money he’d ever spent/ had gotten him only/ sad and lonely/ and it wasn’t worth a cent.”  This (+++) book is certainly very well-meaning, and some of Clayton’s illustrations (mostly exaggerated ones of animals and sometimes exaggerated ones of people) are amusing.  It all does tend, however, to get a bit preachy, with such lines as “Change up your game/ and wake up your brain” in one poem, “that world out there is your world too” in another, and in yet another, “Take what you need/ just enough for yourself/ otherwise you’re taking from someone else.”  The sentiments are unexceptionable, and it is nice that the book ends with the lines “Make magic/ do good/ now and forever.”  But the earnestness is a bit much after a while, and some of it becomes cloying. Clayton clearly means well, but he takes himself just a touch too seriously just a touch too much of the time.

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