Fourth Grade Rats

11May10

By Jerry Spinelli

First grade babies!
Second grade cats!
Third grade angels!
Fourth grade…RRRRRATS!

Fourth Grade Rats is the story of a boy named Suds Morton who is entering the fourth grade. According to the schoolyard nursery rhyme, the fourth graders are known as rats. Suds doesn’t like the idea of going from a third grade angel to a fourth grade rat. He liked being an angel! Suds becomes nostalgic about the idea of growing up. Thinking of his childhood belongings “I tried to picture life without them. I couldn’t. I always thought when you grew up, stuff like bikes and bubble gum just sort of disappeared from your life. You didn’t want them anymore. They got replaced by cars and coffee and all” (p. 21-22). Spinelli’s description of this process of growing up is an interesting articulation of this life event. Reflecting upon my own experiences, I can relate to how as a child you think that magically, POOF!, one day you just become an adult. The difficult part of the whole process is the navigating and transitioning between the two states.

Suds’ best friend Joey has taken the whole rat thing to an extreme, and has altered his behavior to be as ratty as possible. Joey convinces Suds that to become a man, he needs to de defiant of his parents, break the rules, and tolerate pain unnecessary pain (like intentional bee-stings and hammering a nail through his ear lobe. In Joey’s eyes, this process is like a necessary rite of passage as they transition from boyhood to manhood: “You gotta learn to take pain, that’s all. No more crybaby., You know, like the Indians used to do.. You had to go through stuff, really painful, before you could become a man. You had to prove you could take it” (p. 45).

In the end, Suds and Joey realize the antics they have been pulling don’t really make them men, and reconcile to “drop out of the rat race and rejoin the human race” as Joey’s mother most eloquently puts it. I think upper elementary students (grades 3-5) would enjoy this book and find it translatable to their own experiences as they make transitions and begin to shift into their adolescent years.

This book was reminiscent of kind of reflective boyhood narration as in The Wonder Years, where an older version of the character makes commentary on his interactions with members of the opposite sex (“I loved her. I was sure that any day she would start to love me back. In the meantime, she mostly ignored me.” p. 2, “Judy Billings followed Joey around the rest of the day like a puppy dog. I walked home with him, but so did she, and it was like I wasn’t even there.” p. 35)

In critiquing the occasional illustrations in this book, I did not think some of the placements were well thought out. For example, on the two-page spread 52-53, the illustration on the left-hand side of the page reveals a suspenseful moment that happens on the right side of the page. The worst part about this placement is that it happens during the page-flip, not allowing the reader to find out mid-revelation what happened .

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