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Rotten Ralph Lives

Publication Date: 2006-08-14

Rotten Ralph turns 30. Maybe there is hope for the world.

Surely, news that Rotten Ralph is celebrating his 30th anniversary this year must give us a smidgeon of hope for the survival of the planet and public schools. NCLB may have stamped out teacher creativity and struck at the very core of professionalism, but despite all odds, that really really bad-behaving cat lives! And triumphs. [Ralph has misbehaved through fifteen books and a television series.]

Okay, maybe it says something about my personality that when I was assigned to teach the rotten readers of third grade, kids with severe learning difficulties, kids with emotional problems, kids repeating third grade--kids, in short, who hated school and thought they hated books--I warmed to Rotten Ralph in a way that Curious George was never able to touch me, not to mention the smarmy Velveteen Rabbit. Perhaps it's not surprising that I dressed up as Viola Swamp for Halloween. And I didn't have to 'explain it' to any of my students.

I think what I really like about Ralph, though, is that he never quite reforms, never truly cares about the error of his ways, never is really repentant.

I like to think that my enthusiasm for Ralph helped kids realize that no matter what they did, tomorrow was another day (for more mischief) and that the classroom door is always open--no matter what. Of course these were those golden days before Zero Tolerance.

Rotten Ralph author Jack Gantos reminisces: "At first I thought children's books had to be sweet, warm, and gentle ... After [several] failures, I was very frustrated. Then I remembered what one of my teacheers told me. He said, 'You should write about what you know:' I was sitting at my desk and I looked down on the floor and saw my lousy, grumpy, hissing creep of a cat that loved to scratch my ankles, throw fur around the house, and shred the clothes in my closet. So I wrote the first draft of Rotten Ralph."

One reason I dislike recommended books lists is that I never see books like the Rotten Ralph series on them. Book lists suffer from the necessity to be high minded. But when you don't worry about being high minded, a lousy, grumpy, hissing creep of a cat can tell rotten grumpy third graders that they, too, can triumph.

Diane Ravitch's The Language Police has a recommended books list at the end that's typical of high-minded Standardistos. The Grade 3 recommendations include only one living author, Peter SpierThe Star-Spangled Banner and Erie Canal. I happen to be a Spier fan, but do you think these fine books ever inspired a rotten reader?

The good news is that there are lots of poets on Ravitch's list: Walter de la Mare, Emily Dickinson, Eugene Field, Langston Hughes, Edward Lear, Christina Georgina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson. That's the bad news too. A couple of these poets are on my list of all-time favorites, but none exhibit rip-snorting 8-year-old humor. And irreverence. Where's Shel Silverstein? Jack Prelutsky? X. J. Kennedy? William Coles? David McCord? And on and on and on. Surely, "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout," who would not take the garbage out, belongs on any list of recommended titles.

Yes, The Velveteen Rabbit is on Ravitch's list.

Viva Ralph!

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