Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: Walter: The Story of a Rat, by Barbara Wersba, illustrated by Donna Diamond

Words swam through Walter's mind like bright fish, darting back and forth. He did not always understand what he was reading, but the experience excited him. All those images, all those thoughts and ideas!

Walter is an unusual rat. For one thing, he has known how to read since birth. For another, he has a name – one he gave himself when he was very young. But now, Walter is quite old. For the last six months, he's shared a home with a writer named Miss Pomeroy, who is also old and, from Walter's observations, lonely. Though he wants to reach out to her, he's experienced enough unpleasant treatment in his past to know humans do not look kindly on his kind. And so, he keeps himself out of sight.

But then one day, as he's exploring the bookshelves of Miss Pomeroy's personal library, he discovers the children's book section – and the children's books she writes. And he's shocked to find that the vast number of books there, including her own, are full of stories about...mice. Why not rats, Walter wonders? He assumes it's because humans like mice and hate rats. It troubles him, to the point that he feels he must confront her on this, even though it means revealing himself. So one day Walter takes a chance, and he leaves her a note:

My name is Walter.
I live here too. 

And the next night, when Walter excitedly goes upstairs to the library to see if she'd received his note, he finds she's left him a note in reply, which says simply,

I know.

Walter is emotional. She knows! Yet she's never tried to get rid of him. What could this mean? There is only one way to find out: Walter writes back. And so begins the connection between a reader and a writer, a rat and a person. But will this tenuous beginning blossom into friendship?

For Teachers and Librarians:
Walter: The Story of a Rat is a quiet story, yet full of ways for you to integrate the book into your classroom. Here are a few examples:
  • Walter is well-read, even if he doesn't always understand everything he's read. He references titles and quotes from classic literature for both adults and children throughout the story, but the quotes are all unattributed. Help your students discover which quotes came from which books, then discuss why they think the books and quotes have stood the test of time. Another idea: discuss each quote, what the quote means to Walter, and how your students can apply the wisdom Walter gleans from the quotes to their own lives, followed by a poster project where each student depicts one quote he or she finds meaningful, with an appropriate illustration that connects the quote to their own lives.
  • A unit centered around writers and how they work would be appropriate. How does Miss Pomeroy get her writing work done? Have your students research current children's authors online, and compare their work habits with Miss Pomeroy's. Another fun discussion would be how each of your students conducts their own writing, and compare their writing habits to those of Miss Pomeroy.
  • How about an art unit? Have your students closely examine Donna Diamond's illustrations. How do they add to the story? How do they help the reader visualize what they've just read? Would their connection to the story be different if the illustrations were in color, or used a different artistic medium? What about if the artist used a student's own favorite artistic style - would that change how closely they connected to the story? As an activity, have your students re-create favorite scenes from the story, first using the same or similar medium the illustrator used, and then re-create that same scene using their own favorite medium. Post each students' two pieces side-by-side around your room or the hall, then let students browse each others' work. Afterwards, ask them to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the different interpretations each student had.
  • Of course, a letter-writing unit would be lots of fun, combined with and centered around starting and building a new friendship. Finding another classroom in another school willing to become pen-pals is a great way to have your charges learn about both letter-writing and building new friendships.
  • Walter finds Miss Pomeroy's library organization confusing. Compare Miss Pomeroy's system to the school's library system, and the public library system, and even their own home libraries if they're fortunate enough to have one. Discuss pro's and con's of each organization system, why they are the way they are, and how each system benefits or hinders its particular users. As an activity, have your students (in small groups) create a new organization system (charts, maybe, or labeled room diagrams, or maybe a small 3D model) for Miss Pomeroy's library, in a way Walter would find it to make the most sense. Display their work in your room or the school library, then have them explain their choices.
  • Walter is dismayed and even a touch angry that humans hate rats, a belief he holds in part due to the proliferation of mouse stories in Miss Pomeroy's library, and in part due to his own previous treatment at the hands of humans. A related science unit could explore why humans have a negative view of rats, and whether their reasons are valid or based on myth or misinformation. Stretch this unit out to explore other animal species humans view with disdain or fear or loathing, in a similar manner.
  • How about a social studies unit? Walter feels humans' views of rats to be unfair and based on untruths. Have your students break into groups to come up with campaigns to change human's negative views of rats. Make sure they do the research to find scientific and historic reasons why those negative views are unfounded or unfair - or not, in some cases. Later, you can branch into a discussion of how humans unfortunately have throughout history given similar unfair treatment to other humans viewed as different than themselves.
  • Get some geography in there with a unit on maps. Let half of your students create maps of the house as Walter sees and uses it, and the other half as Miss Pomeroy sees and uses it. Or perhaps create a map of the places Walter and Miss Pomeroy have been in the town of Sag Harbor, where they live. Compare this to a map of the actual town of Sag Harbor, New York.  Perhaps do some research and then have your students create tourist brochures of the town - either as Walter and Miss Pomeroy live in it, or as it actually exists in real life.
  • The author, Barbara Wersba, lives in Sag Harbor, New York, in real life. The illustrator, Donna Diamond, is a life-long New York resident. Perhaps an aside of how authors and illustrators sometimes infuse things from their own lives into their work would be a fun discussion. Connect this idea to your students and their own writing. Do they use settings or events from their own lives when they write? Why? Why not?
  • This book is the story of two unlikely souls and the process of their becoming friends. But it is also the story of the relationship between a reader and a writer. If you can, find the address or email of this author or illustrator, or perhaps of whomever your students' individual favorite authors or illustrators are, and have your students write and send letters or emails to these people. Discuss their feelings after they've sent them off. How do their feelings compare to those Walter felt when he wrote that first note to Miss Pomeroy? If anyone is lucky enough to receive responses from the authors or illustrators, encourage them to share how it made them feel to hear back from someone they don't know but admire.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
You will enjoy Walter: The Story of a Rat just as much as your kids. The many classic books mentioned throughout the story – both those for adults, and those for kids – will prod your own memories, even as they pique the curiosity of your kids. And the story is full of themes that mirror real life and the experiences we all face as we grow and learn and live and love. It's a great way for your kids to find they're not alone in things they may be facing or feeling, and that sometimes, life really does have happy endings, even when the journey may be hard, or confusing:
  • Walter and Miss Pomeroy's journey to friendship may mirror your kids' own attempts at forming fledgling friendships: small steps, occasional missteps, attempts to right unintended wrongs, little joys and triumphs, pangs of worry that their gestures of friendships may not be equally returned, or worse - not taken as a welcome gesture at all. But once that friendship takes root and starts to grow, each person finds themselves making little changes for the other one, such as when the usually untidy Miss Pomeroy begins to spruce the place up a bit more when Walter mentions how nice things are starting to look, or when Walter becomes more careful in his treatment of Miss Pomeroy's belongings and more respectful to follow her wishes regarding his conduct in the kitchen at night.
  • Walter moved several times before finally ending up living with Miss Pomeroy, and faced different homes in different places, loss of loved ones, a feeling of insecurity, but also finding new and wonderful people and better situations, and hope for a happy life. Change can be scary, but it can also bring you to something better.
  • As Walter and Miss Pomeroy get to know each other and share their living space, several things become clear. It's important to respect the property of others, to clean up after yourself in order to be respectful of the others you lives with, to return things borrowed to build good faith and trust, and to show appreciation for those you share your life with.
  • At first, Walter judges Miss Pomeroy, sometimes unfairly, based solely on what he sees/observes/discovers. But once he actually makes a connection with her, he soon realizes not everything he assumed about her was true, and that getting to know a person before making judgments is a better – and more accurate – way to interpret what you think you know about a person.
  • Walter is lonely. But he notices that Miss Pomeroy is lonely, too. And instead of wallowing in his own loneliness and sinking into misery, he sets about trying to alleviate Miss Pomeroy's loneliness and help her be happy. In the process he finds he is able to defeat his own loneliness, too. Sometimes, focusing on helping others is a good way to help ourselves.
  • Miss Pomeroy and Walter exchange gifts for Christmas which they made themselves, from things they have at hand, that were custom made with much thought. The gifts cost them nothing, but were invaluable and very much appreciated by the recipients. It's an empowering idea for kids – small gestures that cost nothing, yet are big on thoughtfulness, can have a huge and lasting impact on those we care about, making both giver and receiver feel very loved, indeed.

For the Kids:
Walter: The Story of a Rat is about a reader and a writer. It's also about loneliness. And, it's about friendship. So far, so normal, right? Almost. See, the writer is a human. But the reader? He's a rat. (Yes, really.) But that's not the only thing that sets him apart from other rats: When he was very young, he decided he wasn't happy with the usual rat way of having no name, so he gave himself one. (Yep. He named himself. Walter. After a very famous writer, naturally.) Anyway, after moving around a few times, as rats are wont to do, Walter finds himself living in the house of Miss Pomeroy, who he soon finds out is a writer. Can you imagine the thrill of being a reader who discovers they're living with a real, live, honest-to-goodness writer?

Walter would love to get to know Miss Pomeroy, but he's a rat, and she's a person, and... Well, those two things just don't usually go together, even if they are a reader and a writer. So Walter stays hidden, sneaking food from the kitchen, and borrowing books to read from Miss Pomeroy's library up on the second floor. But then one day, Walter discovers that all the books Miss Pomeroy has written are about mice. Mice! Doesn't she know how wonderful rats are? Walter feels betrayed. And a teensy bit angry. So what does he do? He writes her a note, hoping to start a discussion: My name is Walter. I live here too. And to his shock, he finds she's left a note for him the next night. It says, simply: I know.

What happens next? What are you asking me for? So much better to find out for yourself, don't you think? Go get the book, and get reading!

For Everyone Else:
Walter: The Story of a Rat is the sweet story of the slow-but-steadily-blossoming friendship between two seemingly unlikely souls: a human and a rat. And yet, they are also a pair of kindred spirits: a writer and a reader. Though written for the younger set, the story is timeless and heartwarming, and something that readers of all ages can connect to and enjoy. 

Wrapping Up:
Walter: The Story of a Rat is quiet, heartwarming, subtle, and sweet. A lovely story that's not to be missed.

Title: Walter: The Story of a Rat
Author: Barbara Wersba
Illustrator: Donna Diamond
Pages: 64
Reading Level: Ages 9-11
Publisher and Date: Boyds Mills Press, November 1, 2005
Edition: First
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $16.95
ISBN-10: 1923245411
ISBN-13: 978-1932425413

Author Spotlight: Barbara Wersba

Barbara Wersba is the only child of a Russian-Jewish father and a Kentucky Baptist mother. Growing up, she wanted to be a musician, or a dancer, or a poet, thinking that becoming any of these would take her out of what she believed to be a sad life.
"I grew up in almost total solitude," she once said. "I thought I was lonely when I was simply a loner--and spent much of my childhood daydreaming, writing poems, and creating dramas for my dolls."

When she was 11 years old, in answer to a family friend's inquiry, she impulsively declared her intent to be an actress one day. Soon after, Ms Wersba landed a part in a local play. Though she came to decide she didn't actually like acting, she stuck with it because it gave her purpose, and helped her not to feel alone.

She continued as an actress through college and then professionally, until she fell ill in 1960 and was forced into a lengthy recovery. On the advice of a friend, she turned to writing to pass the time. The result was her first book for children, The Boy Who Loved the Sea, which was published in 1961. From then on, she continued as a writer.

Her breakthrough novel came in 1968, with the publication of The Dream Watcher. She went on to adapt this novel into a script when her childhood acting idol, Eva Le Gallienne, had read Ms Wersba's book and wished to play the role of the elderly woman from the story. The play opened at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in 1975.

Two of her most popular novels are Tunes for a Small Harmonica: A Novel (1976) - which was a National Book Award nominee, and The Carnival of My Mind (1982).

Ms Wersba has written more than two dozen novels for both children and teens/young adults. She has also reviewed children's literature for the New York Times, written play and television scripts, and taught writing. In 1994, she founded her own small publishing company, The Bookman Press.

Born in Chicago on August 19, 1932, Barbara Wersba later moved with her family to California. After her parents' divorce, she moved with her mother to New York City. She now lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

Barbara Wersba - Goodreads
Barbara Wersba Biography - Bookrags
Barbara Wersba Biography - Bookrags 
Dreaming of Broadway - Collecting Children's Books
Barbara Wersba -
Barbara Wersba - Alibris
The Dream Watcher -

Illustrator Spotlight: Donna Diamond

Donna Diamond graduated from Boston University of Art with a BFA in Sculpture, and has attended the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop. She works as an artist, focusing on drawing, painting, printmaking, and book art:

"...I am currently working in my studio on images that synthesize my recent work with light and my work as a printmaker. The challenge of exploring the character of light and creating processes that integrate multiple disciplines is incredibly compelling to me. When I am making art, I feel like I am home."

Her artwork is exhibited in galleries and museums in her native New York, across the United States, and internationally. She has also illustrated over 50 books for young readers, some of which have won prestigious awards, including Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978; and Mustard, by Charlotte Graebner, which won the Irma Simonton Black Award in 1982.

Ms Diamond has won the Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) Award three times: in 2008 for Book Art and Illustration, in 2011 for Printmaking, and in 2013 for Drawing.

Born and raised in New York City, Donna Diamond lives in Riverdale, NY.

Donna Diamond - HarperCollins
Donna Diamond - Scholastic
The Art of Donna Diamond, official blog of the artist
Donna Diamond - Making a "Mark" of Her Own -
Meet the 2013 BRIO Awardees -
Artist's Experience: Donna Diamond
Ann deVere and SPARC present visiting artist Donna Diamond