Monday, April 9, 2012

Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli

Rats! Ages...9.

Sometimes human. Sometimes not.

Preferred speech: dude, Number One, real men don't cry, no, N-O, nope, and ain't.

Grade 4 teachers clamber to read this book aloud to their classes. I can see why. For starters it's short - only 86 pages. It is brimming with funny dialogue.  It deals with parents, siblings, friends, bullies, classmates, and boy-girl relationships. It also has a cheeky main character, Sudsie, who changes from an innocent angelic 3rd grader to a beastly 4th grader.

The story launches with Sudsie's best friend, Joey, teasing him about his lunchbox from first grade with flying elephants on it. Joey laughs at the baby lunchbox and instructs Sudsie to get rid of it. It just ain't cool. Joey has entered the 4th grade rat-hole of being tough. He's wearing a headband, he's not afraid of anything - heck - he'll even let a bee sting him at school to show his classmates he's a macho man. In fact, he is such a man, he tells Sudsie that he has switched from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to baloney because real men eat MEAT. Joey is quite the dud... I mean dude. Anyway, Sudsie is not quite ready for all this manly business. He squeals from pain, quakes around bugs or insects, and panics if his feet are off the ground. He wants to please his parents and doesn't want to be a 4th grade rat. The problem is he really, REALLY, likes Judy Billing and when she takes an interest in the now cool Joey, Sudsie decides to become a real man.

Joey begins Sudsie's transformation with get-tough lessons such as watching the sad part of the movie, E.T., 22 times. And holding 9 spiders without squealing. And crawling out on the roof. What starts out as innocent pranks becomes extreme as the two boys do not realize they have crossed the line of being pranksters to bullies. The also do not get it that Judy is just manipulating them so she can say they did something for her making her the center of attention and feeling popular and important. The unhealthy attention-seeking ploys turns them into rats. Big nasty ones. When Sudsie starts to see some ugly consequences from his choices he has to decide, how much of a rat does he want to be?

The pacing is fast and the writing well-done. Suds voice changes from an innocent 3rd grader at the beginning to a dippy cool kid at the end. At the end of the book Suds is putting Joey in a headlock and calling him "brotha rat" and using slang as in "yo," "man," "dude," and "N-O baby." Suds goes to such an extreme he alienates friends and family becoming a bully. I am not so sure a third grader would transform into that much of a twit-head, but maybe. Suds does learn a lesson and makes a choice at the end on how he wants to be as a person.

I really liked this book and found it entertaining, but I didn't find the ending completely satisfying and too didactic. Suds confesses to his mom what a jerk he has been and she, in turn, explains how his confession shows he is growing up and becoming a mature person (or man), but then Suds frantically looks for his teddy bear that he has thrown away and hugs it at the end like a long lost pal. I realize the author was using the teddy bear as a symbol of Suds going back to being a child but that's the part that I thought was out of character. It was too cutesy and didn't seem to fit with what mean stuff Suds was doing to other students and his siblings. Suds going back to the teddy bear didn't ring true because he had changed over the course of the novel in a way where he lost some of his innocence about being a kind child. Suds is growing up and becoming responsible for his actions and making a choice of what his attitude will be each day toward others. While the author does a great job pointing this out, I didn't buy it that Suds was going to go all the way back to the bear-hugging boy seen at the beginning of the novel. You could argue that adolescence is a see-saw of emotions from mature to immature, but I would have preferred Suds contemplating the bear and putting it on shelf. I am probably nitpicking too much but it crossed my mind.

This book reminded me of Skinnybones by Barbara Park, except that character is the class clown who doesn't realize when he is being funny versus being a smart-aleck. That book is a great read aloud for grade 5 students.

So... reader, say "Y-E-S" to Spinelli's terrific book.

Reading level 4.3

4 out of 5 Smileys

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