Book: The Infamous Ratsos
Author: Kara LaReau
Illustrator: Matt Myers
Age Range: 5-8 (illustrated early chapter book)
The Infamous Ratsos is a very early chapter book about two motherless brothers who aspire to be tough guys. Their father, Big Lou, is "tough, tough, tough. He drives a truck and a forklift and sometimes a snowplow. He hardly ever smiles." Big Lou reminded me a lot of Big Mean Mike from the picture book by Michelle Knudsen and Scott Magoon. Every day when he leaves for work, Big Lou tells the boys to "Hang tough." Louie and Ralphie try their very best to be tough. But all of their bad guy schemes backfire, and to their chagrin they end up praised instead of feared.
As an adult reader, I found some of the coincidences that turned things around for the Ratso brothers to be a bit implausible, like when they try to pile snow in front of a local business but have difficulty seeing what they are doing, and end up clearing the sidewalk instead. But I think that Louie and Ralphie's failed efforts will make kids giggle.
One thing I really like about this book is that although the characters are animal instead of human, the Ratso family is clearly from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Big Lou struts around in his uniform shirt and hat. They live in a not at all posh apartment. They live in a city, and walk past graffiti on their way to school. Most of this is not overtly addressed in the story, but it's there for kids to absorb anyway.
I also like that Louie and Ralphie WANT to be tough guys. Even though it doesn't work out as planned, I think that their desire will speak to young readers, especially boys. They have hot chocolate mugs that say "Hug Someone Today". They've each crossed out and replaced the first letter of "hug", so that one mug says "Slug Someone Today" and the other says "Bug Someone Today." If you ask me, this is a completely plausible rebellion by two boys with no mother and a strong but silent father.
Kara LaReau's text is at a reasonable difficulty level for new readers, with a mix of longer and shorter sentences. Like this:
"As for the Ratso brothers' mother, she's been gone for a little while now, which is very sad. The Ratso brothers don't like to think about Mama Ratso. Big Lou doesn't like to think about Mama Ratso either." (Page 2)
"When they climb the steps of the front porch, the Ratso brothers can see that Mrs.Porcupini's sour-pickle expression is gone. In its place is an expression that looks very much like delight." (Page 42)
I love "sour-pickle expression" and the way that LaReau uses vivid description, while maintaining an accessible vocabulary.
The font is large and wide-spaced, and there are illustrations every couple of pages, all of which also helps to keep the book accessible to younger readers. Matt Myers' illustrations add detail and humor to the story, as when Florinda Rabbitski is shown with droopy long ears and ill-fitting but glamorous glasses. Older brother Louie Ratso wears a tough-guy scowl most of the time, but the younger Ralphie is less able to pull this off.
In short, The Infamous Ratsos is a fine addition to the ranks of early chapter books, with humor, heart, and socioeconomic diversity, all in a new-reader-friendly package. This would make a great addition to classroom libraries serving first and second graders, and is one that I think my six-year-old will be ready for fairly soon. Recommended!
Publisher: Candlewick Press (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: August 2, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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