When You Wish Upon a Rat, by Maureen McCarthy (Amulet Books, Sept. 2012 in the US, middle grade) is the first book I can remember reading in which a sentient stuffed animal magically transports the main character back in time....
Months have gone by since eleven-year-old Ruth's older brother threw her stuffed rat into the river (a special, antique sort of stuffed rat, not taxidermy, that was a gift from her favorite aunt). Months in which Ruth's aunt died, and Ruth grieved...months spent despising life in a family consisting of absentminded, overly relaxed parents and distasteful brothers. Indeed Ruth has it rather hard--as the only one who cares about organization, and clean dishes, and Standards, she does more than her share of the housework. Her parents really do pay more attention to her brothers than they do to her, and on top of that, the cool girls who were her friends are now hostile.
The rat episode was pretty much the last straw that cemented Ruth's dislike of her family, and she's been furious with her brother ever since. But when she strikes up the beginnings of a friendship with Howard, a boy who's even more an outsider than she is, things change. Howard suggests that she might go back, long trip via public transportation though it is, to the spot where she last saw her rat....
And she finds it again. And it is alive, in a magical, still a stuffed rat kind of a way. Not only that, but it can grant wishes--wishes that can change her life.
So, in classic be careful what you wish for style, Ruth experiments with three different lives. One makes her an only child, the center of attention of dotting, well-off parents, who smother her. One wish, for an "ordered, quiet life. No family," fulfils her request nicely--the catch with that is that she's an orphan in a strict convent boarding school. And the final wish has Ruth about to win a kids television quiz show--but there's a nasty twist to that too.
You can probably guess the end, but I couldn't help but continue to feel sorry for Ruth and to wish her parents tried harder with the dishes and with her birthday presents. They really are somewhat neglectful, and the fact that I thought Ruth's original life was pretty awful made me a little disappointed that, after all was said and done, her house was still a mess.
So the story as a whole is fairly predictable in the general way things play out, but the ways in which Ruth's various lives play out makes for interesting reading. The time travel sub-story, which did come as a surprise, was especially nice for me, fan of orphan and school stories that I am.
Ruth's reactions to the strictures of Catholic school life, which comes complete with despotic nuns, are spot on, and the friendship she makes with another student is a genuinely real relationship with reverberations into the present that cause Ruth to change for the better. Those who are left hand might find this section of the book particularly interesting--her new friend is left-handed, and is being pretty much tortured into using her right hand.
In short, a fun contemporary addition to the "kid who tries on other lives through magic" sub-genre.
Other blog reviews: Tsana's Reads and Reviews, Sharon the Librarian, and Teen Book Reviews
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.