It’s easy to become jaded. Read enough children’s fiction and it all begins to swim and swirl about in your head. Was that the middle grade novel about a girl who likes a boy with twinkling blue eyes or deep brown ones you just read? Did that historical fiction work involve a plucky boy working in a coalmine or a plucky girl in a mill? And fantasy? Don’t get me started. If the villains don’t burst onto the scene in the first chapter it’s the exception rather than the rule. I gotta say though that when it comes to rodents with magical powers, there are few titles to turn to. "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh" was strictly scientific (that is, if you can forget the movie). "I, Freddy" is more along the lines of "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" than anything else. No, mice and magic don’t intersect all that often. One can’t help but think that if they did the result would be wuh-eird. Wuh-eird, as it happens, is not a bad word to describe author Lynne Jonell’s startling middle grade debut. At this point in my review’s introductory paragraph I usually like to compare the book in my hands to titles you might be familiar with. Something along the lines of, "It’s like ‘James and the Giant Peach’ meets ‘The Perils of Peppermints’." But when it comes to "Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat," there’s not much you can compare the book to. It’s one of a kind, and how kids take that originality will be interesting to note, indeed.
Poor Emmy. Nobody notices her. Not her parents who are constantly jet-setting around to globe. Not her schoolmates or her teacher, who all seem incapable of remembering her name. No, it’s just Emmy, her somewhat frightening nanny Miss Barmy, and the school rat. The Rat not only pays attention to Emmy but talks to her sometimes too. Granted it tends to tell Emmy to try being bad once in a while, but the girl knows that it has a good heart beneath its prickly demeanor. Soon, however, Emmy finds that the Rat is not all that it seems to be. Talking is just the least of its abilities, and as the girl discovers more about her nanny and the woman’s sinister plot involving Emmy, her parents, and a host of exotic rodents, so too does she establish a core group of friends who will aid her through thick and thin.
At some point Henry Holt and Company got all clever on us and decided to create little packets of first chapters of their upcoming book seasons to hand out at library conferences. As a result, I read the first chapter of "Emmy" some time ago and remembered to give it a glance when a full-length physical copy fell into my lap. I’m glad I did. In spite of its 346-some-page length, I can’t help but think that this would make an excellent book to read aloud to a 4th, 5th, or 6th grade class. There is something distinctly Dahl-like hidden in the crevices of this book. Much of the plot relies on old Roald Dahl standbys, like malicious caretakers, controlled magic, and children who are far cleverer than the adults that surround them. And if I’m not too much mistaken, I think that there’s even a tip of the hat to Ramona Quimby in this book. Where else, after all, have you ever heard the National Anthem sung with the words, "daaawnzer lee liiight"?
I should note that some small illustrations in this book have been created thanks to the frighteningly prolific pen of Jonathan Bean. The man has contributed to AT LEAST four children’s books in 2007 alone. One gets a little queasy wondering how much else he might have up his sleeve. In this particular offering Bean provides only scant pictures. There’s the cover, a title page or two, and a very amusing flip-book graphic on the side of the text that shows the Rat falling out of a tree into Emmy’s hands. Librarians should be warned that if you find this particular title over-thumbed in your collection, there is a very good reason for it.
I did appreciate that Jonell felt obligated to cover her bases, even when the reader forgets a detail here and there. For example, there is a point in the story when it is discovered that the Rat’s bite shrinks people. Yet Emmy’s schoolmate Joe points out that he was bitten by the rat before but to no effect. He raises this point several times, actually, so that the reader slowly realizes just how important this fact is (particularly since it leads to a huge climax in the plot later). Still, sometimes the book felt less than entirely consistent. You’re never quite sure exactly how small Joe and Emmy become when they’re shrunk. Joe is able to wear G.I. Joe clothing sometimes, but at other moments he’s supposedly large enough to play soccer with some chipmunks. Then again, we’re told that "We’re only a few inches high, you know. Four feet, to us, is going to seem like being on top of a six story building." Inconsistencies like this made it hard to visualize the action.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)