When I first saw The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot on my library’s bookshelf, it appealed to me on several levels. I’d always wanted to booktalk a graphic novel, but the graphic novels I knew the best were the ones that I’d read back in college, like Watchmen and The Sandman. This book appealed to me because it was a modern story in which a teenager was the protagonist. It also appealed to me because I, too, had been a fan of Beatrix Potter books when I was growing up. So the title set off a little Pavlovian bell in the back of my brain that made me want to read the book. When I finished reading it, I was moved both by the powerful story, and by the ending that felt like a punch in the gut. Yes, I knew all along that SOMETHING must be wrong, but I didn’t realize …
The trick about booktalking is giving away enough of the story to get your audience hooked but not giving away the ending (since you want them to read it for themselves!) This booktalk was tricky to write because the story as a whole is kind of quiet. The goal is to fill your audience’s heads with questions: Why did Helen run away from home? Why would she rather be homeless than go back? Why does she think about killing herself? Why does she feel guilty? Why can’t she trust people anymore? Hopefully, if you put enough of these questions in their heads, they will have no choice but to read this book to find out the answers.
Helen is living on the streets of London. She’s made a cardboard sign saying “Homeless and Hungry. Please Help” that she puts in front of her, waiting for the few coins that will keep her alive. Helen doesn’t know how much longer she can keep living on the streets. She often thinks about killing herself.
Helen’s only possessions are the Beatrix Potter books she took with her when she ran away from home, and her only friend is her pet rat. It’s the rat that keeps her alive more than anything else, because it depends on her for food and companionship, and Helen needs to feel needed and loved. Helen also needs to leave London and start her life over again; she’s run away once already, but it seems that she can’t run far enough to leave her past behind her. The guilt about what happened when she was living at home is still following her, haunting her. It changes how she feels about people, when she makes the decision about whether or not to trust each person she meets. She’s already learned the hard way what can happen when the person you trust most in the world betrays you.
Helen punishes herself every time she imagines throwing herself in front of a train, or jumping off a bridge. But even that kind of escape might not be enough to free her from her past. Helen is going to learn that running away from her problems will always mean never running far enough. And that the only way she will ever be able to deal with what happened to her is if she stops running, turns around … and faces the truth.