Little Rat Sets Sail, illustrated by Molly Bang

Little Rat Sets Sail
First published in 2001

Little Rat Rides
First published in 2004

Little Rat Makes Music
First published in 2008

All three Little Rat books were written by Monika Bang-Campbell and illustrated by Molly Bang

About the Stories
Little Rat Sets Sail is the first of a series of three stories about Little Rat. The second, Little Rat Rides, is about how she learns to ride a horse, and the third, Little Rat Makes Music, is about how she learns to play the violin.

The series began as a project to help my daughter Monika earn money to pay her way through graduate school in social work, and as a way of putting her humorous, idiosyncratic style of telling stories onto paper. Since she is the writer in this series, I will let her tell about the writing in her own time, and will concentrate here on how I thought about the pictures.

For these illustrations, I decided to use the style that is easiest for me: drawing from reality, in pencil, with watercolor filling out the colors—all except for the Rat Family's fur, which is done with a mix of dust from both chalk and charcoal.

Many years ago, when Monika was about three, she had a pet white rat named Sophie Rat. Sophie Rat was originally a lab rat, and she was quite happy with us, partly because she could occasionally escape and wander back under the eaves, and because she got to chew big holes in a purple sweater I had just knitted for Monika. So Monika liked rats from the time she was very small.

For the book, we bought a brown rat we named Rat, so I could make sure all the details in the illustrations would be correct. For example, Rat's forefeet have four rather long fingers but only a tiny almost vestigial thumb, (a detail I'd never noticed before) and her tail has a few long hairs at the very tip, like tailtip whiskers. The skin on her legs looks a lot like the skin of small birds’ legs.

Soon after Rat arrived, she began rushing around in her aquarium, gathering the rags and straw around her in some sort of frenzy. The next morning, she was accompanied by three baby rats, only one of which, the brown one, survived for more than a couple of days. This became Little Rat. Her nose is shorter than her Mom's; her tail is shorter, too. One thing I noticed that the rats did, in addition to constant grooming of themselves and each other, is to drape their tails over each other, and hold their own tails. I used this to show Little Rat's uncertainty when her parents told her she was going to take sailing lessons.

Momma and Little Rat moved around a lot, so I could draw them in all sorts of positions. But Rats move a LOT, they never stay still, so I could never finish a sketch of them. It was easy to draw them sleeping—which was most of the day, since rats are mostly night creatures—but then they curled up into a ball and hid their noses and eyes and feet, so there was nothing much to see. I got lazy and took lots of photographs.

For most of my books, I've made a beginning sketch on good paper and then corrected it until it was "right." Sometimes I'd go through many, many pieces of good paper this way. With the Little Rat series, I made the initial drawing on cheaper paper, working directly from a photo, and traced the parts I liked. Then on the back of the tracing paper I would trace over these lines and transfer that part onto another piece of cheap paper and keep revising the rest. I’d keep working until I liked more of it, and then finally transfer this onto good paper, paint it in, and then, last of all, draw in the dark, final lines in 5B or 6B pencil. After Little Rat, I had piles of tracing paper covered with the ghosts of half-finished pictures.

For the details of the pictures for Little Rat Sets Sail, I painted boats and beaches near our house on Cape Cod. For details of Little Rat Rides, I used the animals and buildings on the farm where Monika used to ride when she was little. The real Pee Wee is loping around somewhere in the skies now and there are no photographs of him, so I used as my model, Salty, a Belgian draft horse whom I first got to know when I myself began to learn to ride at age 56. I am still learning to ride now, almost 20 years later.

The photograph of Starduster and Daddy Rat is from a real photo of Monika's real Dad riding the real Starduster in a real Fourth of July parade many, many years ago. I played with the photo on Photoshop so the original person-Dad became a rat-Dad, but the horse remained the same. The photo of Pee Wee sneezing is also Photoshopped, from a photograph of the real 10-year old Monika riding a horse named Happy, who was having a fit of sneezing at the Barnstable County Fair.

The pictures for Little Rat Makes Music I sketched from many poses a boy named Ben struck for me. We first thought he could simply play and I would sketch him as he played, but it turned out that I couldn’t figure out what was happening unless he stood still. He got tired of standing still very fast, which means I had to sketch fast. But sketching fast makes the pictures more energetic, so it worked out. The Community Hall is modeled on the Community Hall in Woods Hole, where we have meetings and concerts and dances and art shows and performances of all sorts throughout the year. And Monika’s Dad does play the piano very well, and he accompanied her on the piano all the years she practiced violin. And she did have tantrums. And she did learn to play, so sometimes when we were washing the dishes, we did hear beautiful music coming from her room.

copyright 2018 by Molly Bang