cover image The Highway Rat

The Highway Rat

Julia Donaldson, illus. by Axel Scheffler. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-545-47758-1

The team behind The Gruffalo and other titles returns with a tale of a rodent highwayman whose “manners were rough and rude,” stealing food from those he meets on the road. Things look dark for this animal kingdom until a clever duck—who is also an impressive equestrienne—uses the Highway Rat’s gluttony against him. Scheffler’s drawings always offer plenty of pleasures: his bold ink lines and glowing colors give these pages a comic intensity, and his characters’ round, bright eyes exude a geeky earnestness. But this story feels like a missed opportunity. The Highway Rat always demands sweets and junk food from his hardworking, peasant-class victims (“Give me your pastries and puddings!/ Give me your chocolate and cake!”), only to receive the rather bland stuff that makes up their subsistence diets (clover from a rabbit, leaves from the ants, flies from a spider). Rather than make comedic hay of this incongruity, Donaldson and Scheffler seem chiefly interested in portraying the ho-hum selfishness of their protagonist and meting out a humdrum punishment: “And they say he still works in the cake shop,/ sweeping the cake shop floor.” Ages 4–8. (Apr.)