How could I have taken so long to discover Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos? In 2006, Rotten Ralph celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. To date, there are at least nineteen books about Rotten Ralph. Moreover, Rotten Ralph had at one time been so popular, a thirty-minute television show based on the characters aired for one year. Yet this October is the first time I read this humorous tale.
The story line of Rotten Ralph, the book for which Jack Gantos gained his fame, is an interesting one. Gantos starts out by providing various examples of how Ralph is a rotten cat, with each one taking more paragraphs to explain and showing increasingly worse behavior, until readers have to decide how much to stomach. Next, in a clever twist on the traditional plot, Ralph’s exasperated family decides to leave him with the circus. At this point, the story takes on a questionable melodramatic air: Ralph is made to work. And work. And work. And when he refuses, he is locked up and taunted and tormented. He then runs away, and gets cold and sick and lonely. In one sense, this part of the story feels as if it were written by a young person. In another sense, it feels exactly how a young person would view the world. So, I’m left feeling as if Rotten Ralph has a charm which works for a standalone book but also as if I’d like to read subsequent stories to see if they become more sophisticated.
Now let me talk about Rotten Ralph as a character, because it makes for the most questionable part of the series. Rotten Ralph is certainly the type who could give cats a bad name. Ralph taunts Sarah, goes after mother’s favorite birds, and ruins a birthday party by taking a bite out of all the cookies. I wonder if Ralph more epitomizes naughty boys than bad cats. After all, Ralph also knows how to blow bubbles through a pipe, smash a bike, and even use a saw to cut down a tree branch which boasts a swing. At any rate, Ralph certainly is rotten. And the colorful and kinetic drawings by Nicole Rubel help with that depiction.
The question isn’t about how developed of a character Ralph is, but how are readers to feel about him. Should we view him in the same vein as Garfield, that lovable fat cat in whom many of us see ourselves? Or in the same vein as Alexander and Max, childhood book characters who had wicked temper tantrums yet were lovable? The difference is that none of the aforementioned icons were outright mean.
Ralph instead seems closer in spirit to the Herdmans, a family who has never been held up as an exemplary model of behavior. Yet I think we are supposed too sympathize with the Herdmans, because for all their rambunctiousness they had a vulnerable side. Anti-heroes will always be controversial, because they display more bad sides than good. Yet the reality is that in every mischievous child, there exists an Alexander and a Max and a Ralph. Moreover, in every bad moment or day, there lies the chance for even adults to act like any of these characters. And so I think that’s why, despite all his questionable antics, Ralph has dedicated followers.
Do I want all my shelves filled with books about characters like Ralph? To be honest, no. Do I regret my purchase? Not at all. There are moments when my students or even I myself need a story about the individuals who fail more often than they succeed. For we all have both of those types of moments in our lives.