Co-Review: Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
by Lynne Jonell

h1 August 8th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
by Lynne Jonell
Art by Jonathan Bean
Henry Holt
August 2007
(Review copies*)

Warning: A few minor plot spoilers included below . . .

Jules: I’ll try to briefly summarize the book here and then let Eisha begin with some thoughts on this intermediate-aged novel, the first novel written by picture book author Lynne Jonell.

“Emmy was a good girl. At least she tried very hard to be good,” opens the novel. She’s so good that she never talks back to her rather frightful nanny, Miss Barmy. And Emmy (age ten — but “almost eleven: hardly a little girl anymore”) is a bit disturbed that her parents — normally loving and affectionate — have changed so much, hopping from one vacation spot to the next, too busy to give her the time of day. “If you did better in school, I’m sure they would be pleased,” Miss Barmy tells her. Emmy just can’t win. And, since she really was a little too good, she likes to sit by the bitingly sarcastic, snarky Rat in her classroom. He talks to Emily. Yes, it all begins when she hears him snort one day and she wondered aloud, “Why are you always so mean?” She didn’t expect the Rat to answer, but he did.

Thus begins the novel. With the Rat by her side, Emmy embarks on an adventure to figure out why her parents have stopped talking to her, why the other children in school act as if she doesn’t exist, and why Miss Barmy forces her to drink and eat the strangest things.

Mommy Go Away!I Need a Snakeeisha: Well, I have long been a fan of Lynne Jonell’s picture books (especially Mommy Go Away! and I Need a Snake), so I expected Emmy to be quirky. But – dude. This was quirky, and dark, and original, and funny, and unpredictable, and just plain weird… I couldn’t really compare it to anything else, except maybe Roald Dahl.

Actually, yeah, that is a fitting comparison. It has Dahl’s edgy darkness in the twisted schemes of Miss Barmy. It has Dahl’s thinly veiled social commentary, in the neglectful behavior of Emmy’s parents and the other adults in their social circle toward their children. It’s got a wacky sense of humor – sometimes delving into a bit of gross potty humor, too. And it’s got a strong dose of the pseudo-scientific supernatural.

But that’s where this story really stands out. The major premise – that contact with certain rodents – or their saliva, or fur, or blood, etc. – can cause changes in human’s emotions, or character, or physical state of being – is really wildly original. And I admit, I kind of grappled with it at points – I’m not sure if that’s just me not being able to suspend my disbelief or if it needed a little more grounding in Emmy’s otherwise believable world.

What did you think, J.? Did the idea of rats that can shrink you with a bite and restore you to full size with a kiss work for you?

Jules: Oh I hear ya. You put it well. I had the exact same reaction. I definitely thought: this is like no other middle-grade novel I’ve read in a long while. And I also thought the whole chinchilla effect, the magical-qualities-of-a-rat’s-foot element (and its application — putting his footprint in tarts), was flat-out weird, as in how did Jonell think this up? And Miss Barmy’s atmostherapy. And her outlandish lessons to Emmy (“better bowel habits through dietary empowerment” — right on!). It was all very bizarre. And, yeah, I had just a few moments where I wasn’t sure my disbelief was thoroughly suspended. That’s interesting that we both had a similar reaction to that specifically.

But, overall, it all really worked for me — primarily because of Emmy. I was immediately endeared to her and never stopped caring about her quest for bravery and the freakiness of her journey. She had me at her note to the Rat on page 16: “I’m sorry I was mean. It didn’t feel as good as you said it would — Emmy” . . . And as she grew in spunk and strength throughout the novel (“Emmy lifted her chin and glared right back. A new and unaccustomed spirit of defiance was stinging in her veins”), I was hooked. And — I’m probably getting ahead of myself here — but I like how some of the success Emmy and her friends had toward the novel’s close was not all dependent on magic (and spellbinding rodents) but instead hinged on Emmy’s personal choices, particularly that scene I found so touching in which she decided not to take the life of the Endear Mouse. And — what a big fat baby I am — when she realized
“{f}riends are people who help when things go wrong; but Miss Barmy had wanted her to be alone, without any help at all” . . . well, I was cheering for her. I suppose I was really invested in her journey, and I think that’s kudos to Jonell for making her so real and flawed yet lovable, despite the outlandish people and actions and rodents of her world.

I also thought it was great fun and very funny in many spots. Didn’t you love Buck and Chippy, those chipmunks who were catapulting cockleburs at cats and their talk of drag coefficients and gravitational pulls and initial cocklebur speeds — and their hooting after they turned that cat away with a cocklebur square in the ear, thanks to Buck’s successful aim-then-fling method? Oh my. I was laughing out loud. I can’t wait to read this to my daughters when they’re older.

I like the Dahl comparison. It’s very fitting. I’ve never quite understood how J.K. Rowling can be compared to Dahl so often — I’m not so sure the comparison should go beyond the wild, multi-flavored funky candies (but I suppose I should shut my trap, since I haven’t gotten beyond book four or five — I can’t even remember which — and I need to start all over again). But, you are spot-on with comparing this novel to a Dahl-ian world, especially with the social commentary you mention — which, for Jonell, is the over-scheduled child, the adults overexerting themselves to organize a child’s play, the neglectful parents, the sensational news media (I particularly loved the name Studley Jackell for that reporter — and “Mr. and Mrs. Benson, would you like to share your heartbreak and pain with our Channel 82 viewers tonight?”), and acronyms like INEPT, the Institute of Nice Educators and Pleasant Teachers (who are afraid to discipline). Heh.

What do you think? Did you respond favorably to any of those elements of the book either? And what did you think of that acrobatic rat in the flip-book feature by the fabulous Jonathan Bean? I love his art work. I want to marry it. I just got a copy of his At Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is wonderful and I hope to review soon, and I just figured out he did that great cover for Kate Coomb’s The Runaway Princess . . . but I digress.

eisha: Oh, yeah, I totally loved the tumbling rat flip-book effect in the illustrations. And yes, I did love the humor – that bit of dialogue between the chipmunk brothers was hilarious. And I loved Emmy. You’re right, she’s a great, sympathetic, spunky, engaging character, and she pulled the funkier elements of the story together.

I think the Rowling/Dahl comparisons stem from the neglected/abused child with supernatural abilities finding love and self-acceptance through the nurturing attentions of a friendly adult motif. Before Harry, there were Matilda, and James. But stylistically, no, I never thought they had that much in common either. Jonell’s book feels much closer to the wacky-dark-weirdness of Dahl’s works.

I also agree with your overall assessment – the book’s strengths outweigh the occasional stretches of imagination that the premise requires. Certain kids will really enjoy this one. But – one last little picky thing – one moment I had a real issue with was at the climax, when certain human characters (trying to avoid a major spoiler here) changed into rats, seemingly forever. One of those characters seemed oddly blasé about it, didn’t you think? Given the lengths to which this character had gone to attain his/her goals, did it seem weird to you that he’d/she’d pretty much just shrug and say “Oh well” about PERMANENTLY TURNING INTO A RAT?

Jules: If you mean the character who became a piebald and whose primary response was a grumbly I’m-not-living-in-Rodent-City-with-a-bunch-of-chipmunks-is-all-I’m-sayin’, then yes, I know what you mean. (And, incidentally, I don’t think it’s being “picky” to expect believable reactions in what you read). I liked how, very soon after that, the professor pointed out that this character we’re speaking of had a loving parent and a vicious one, but she made her choice in life as to how to behave. I was glad Jonell didn’t take the blame-the-parents-for-her-vileness route, which she could have done.

Well, this was fun, as usual. I’m glad we got to meet Emmy. The little girl in the new picture book by Jonathan Bean (referenced above — did I mention it’s wonderful?) rather looks like Emmy. Maybe it’s Emmy with her now-loving-parents after Miss Barmy was thwarted. Maybe I can ask Jonathan Bean, since I want to marry his art work and since you know, Eisha, I have no shame in emailing illustrators and asking to feature their work on Sundays. Perhaps he even has an Emmy image he can share. Never hurts to ask.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing? A review of this title by Fuse. I don’t mean to single out any one blog — okay, well, I guess I do, ’cause I adore her thoughtful, detailed reviews. And since this type of book is her focus (those intermediate-aged novels), I wonder what she’d think. Hmmm, we’ll have to keep our eye out to see if she covers it.

Thanks for talkin’ Emmy and shrinking rodents with me, a book I think we’d both agree is highly recommended; terrifically Dahl-ian (while still being decidely Jonell-ian); wildly original; and like nothing else we’ve read this year — once readers can wrap their minds around the wonderfully bizarre, out-there premise. We both look forward to what Jonell may bring us next (maybe a sequel? OOH LA LA) . . .

Until next time . . .

* * * * * * *

* Note: We each read an uncorrected proof of this title. Please note that quoted excerpts could change.

9 comments to “Co-Review: Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
by Lynne Jonell”

  1. I’ve read, but can’t comment on this book as it is Newbery eligible, but thought you might enjoy the article, “Chocoholic squirrel steals treats from Finnish shop” (

  2. That is a cute article, Monica. But someone needs to follow the squirrel and find out what it’s doing with the toys!

  3. Just thought I’d share that a little birdy — uh, a little rodent — confirmed that the sequel, out in Fall ’08 — will be “Emmy & the Home for Troubled Girls.” HOO HAH! Love that title.

    Thanks for the link, Monica.

  4. What you want I shall provide. I’ve two books I’m working on right now, but when they’re done I’ll do Jonell’s title next. We shall see what we shall see.

  5. The Runaway Princess is a good book. Read it and recommend it to those who like Goose Girl, Goose Chase, Once Upon a Marigold, etc.

    Emmy and the… sounds cute. I love the lines your quoted. Remind me to request them from the library after work.

    Monica: Squirrel! Too bad they didn’t snap a photo of the actual squirrel for that article.

  6. I think that the only books that can truly be compared to Dahl are ones that make kids slightly nervous that their parents might figure out what they’re reading. This sounds subversive enough to be in that category. HP isn’t, IMHO. The Series of Unfortunate Events is another one that inspires this kind of response. Kids tend to ask for it when their parents are decidedly Out of the Room and then they shove it under some other innocuous-looking book about dogs or something when they take it up front to check out. As if I don’t know what they’re up to.

  7. Dahl was definitely one of the first comparisons I could make, although as a kinder gentler Dahl, for sure. The rats, Barmy, etcetera, definitely composed most of that feeling, but there was that added touch of the slightly disconnected but adored parents.

  8. Okay. Review is done writ. But I swear, I swear I didn’t read your review until I wrote mine. So the Dahl comparisons must be true. They popped into my brain as well.

  9. “Three out of three reviewers agree: Emmy is Dahlesque!”

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