From a master storyteller, here is a warm and funny, yet heartfelt, novel for younger readers. 11-year-old Ruth is stuck with a family who just don't understand her. It takes a magical encounter with the sharp-nosed and even-sharper-tongued Rodney the Rat to help her see what's really important.
Maureen McCarthy is the ninth of ten children and grew up on a farm near Yea in Victoria. After working for a while as an art teacher, Maureen became a full-time writer. Her novels have been shortlisted for numerous awards and include the In Between series, which was adapted from scripts Maureen co-wrote with Shane Brennan for SBS TV; Ganglands; Cross my Heart; Chain of Hearts; Flash Jack; When you Wake and Find me Gone and Rose by any other name. Her much-loved bestseller, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life was made into a highly successful 4-part mini-series for ABC TV.
Careful What You Wish For is an intriguing and lightly funny story by Maureen McCarthy that starts out slowly and gently draws you in. Ruth Craze personifies every teenager who has ever felt embarrassed by their family and wondered if perhaps there wasn’t a mistake and they ended up with the wrong household. Tragically unhappy with her lot in life, there is a part of us that has to sympathise with Ruth and a part that knows she is being melodramatic. In bringing her characters to life, Maureen McCarthy falls just short of painting caricatures and instead creates believable people and a realistic situation that could just be a mite annoying.
Three wishes offer Ruth the chance to create the life she wants, but it doesn’t take long for each seemingly perfect scenario to develop problems. The solution is gentle and, being far from perfect, shows that perfection is impossible. Each option is delightfully and fully explored, and each has a lot to recommend it and a lot to avoid. Life in each one would have its ups and downs, and it is in weighing up these possibilities that Ruth learns more about herself and her family than she had expected. And, no, the final outcome doesn’t make it all okay and magically take away the problems. It just rearranges perceptions.
This would be a great book to read with Year 5 or 6, full of fun and adventure. Through it, you could explore family relationships and friendships (both important issues to this age group), circumstances and resilience, and thinking about how to make good out of what life offers, even when it isn’t perfect (which might include a discussion about just when it is appropriate to make change happen). It is certainly a story that makes you think. I would have to agree with the words on the back cover: Careful What You Wish For is indeed a ‘gloriously life-affirming adventure’.
Cate Whittle, ACT
Ruth Craze hates almost everything about her life: her annoying brothers, her weird parents and their weird hobbies, the messy house they live in and the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any friends. The one redeeming factor is her Aunt Mary Ellen. They enjoy spending time together and Mary Ellen seems to understand her. But then Mary Ellen falls ill and before she dies, she gives Ruth a stuffed rat named Rodney with instructions to give him away when he stops being useful. Rodney the Rat offers Ruth three chances to change her life; she just has to say what she wants. The problem is she isn’t specific enough. Rodney can’t read minds and really has no clue as to the wishes and desires of a pre-teen girl. Thus each wish becomes an adventure in itself. Ruth first finds herself in her own family but she is the centre of attention and soon feels stifled. Her second wish is to have no family so Rodney sends her to a Catholic boarding school in the 1950s but that isn’t quite right either. Ruth decides she wants to be noticed for something and finds herself in the media spotlight as the brainiest girl in the state.
I really enjoyed this book and once I had started it, didn’t want to put it down. The plot is fast-paced and keeps the reader guessing. The interesting characters make the book funny in places but I found myself rooting for Ruth and hoping she would accept herself and eventually find life fun and rewarding. With a bit of magic from Rodney and lots of real life dramas, this book is a great read for 9 to 14 year olds, especially those less enamoured with life.
Claire Cheeseman, Summerland Primary School, NZ
The protagonist in this book is Ruth, a young girl who is feeling at odds with the world she is living in. Ruth’s much-loved Aunt has died and Ruth is irritated and angry with her family and girlfriends. The only person she can relate to is the new kid in school, the loner Howard. She tells Howard about how she came to lose the rat, Rodney, given to Ruth by her aunt. Howard then organises and accompanies Ruth on a journey to the country bridge where Rodney was last seen.
During the journey to find Rodney, Ruth reminisces about times spent with her aunt. She also reflects on how she has become estranged from her girlfriends. The narrative very effectively captures the angst of a young girl trying to cope with grief.
Arriving at the bridge, Howard falls asleep and Ruth is reunited with Rodney. The rat then offers her the chance to create her perfect life. I found this part of the story rather contrived and the alternative worlds were jarring. Somewhat predictably, Ruth decides that her own life is not so bad and she chooses to return to it. This novel has a strong female protagonist and explores some of the difficulties that emerge in school relationships and with grief. It may be a gentle introduction for readers who are starting to explore the fantasy genre.
Anne Gray, TAS
Ruth Craze lives in a shabby house, with her embarrassingly weird family, and to make matters worse, she has fallen out with her friends. The only bright light in Ruth’s world is her Aunt Mary Ellen. One day her Aunt gives her a box containing a grey rat named Rodney. Rodney becomes an important part of Ruth’s life. One day Ruth and her family are out and one of Ruth’s brothers throws Rodney into the river.
The adventure continues when Ruth and her newly-found friend Howard set out to find Rodney. When Ruth is finally reunited with Rodney he uses his mysterious powers and grants Ruth three wishes to create her perfect life. She makes her wishes and one by one is given what she thinks will make her life perfect. Each wish leads Ruth on an adventure, each adventure initially giving Ruth the feeling that Rodney had got it right. Each life that Rodney creates for her seems perfect at first but as time goes on the imperfections begin to show. It is through these adventures that Ruth realises her perfect life is the one she already has. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for; this time she was lucky as Rodney had given her a way back. It seems Rodney was a very intelligent mouse.
Although the moral of the story is tried and tested, Maureen McCarthy successfully engages the reader and tactfully delivers the moral to the target audience. Themes such as family relationships, friendships and consequences are effectively covered in this book. This was a very enjoyable book, with a little sadness, some laughs and some happiness too. Maureen McCarthy has written a warm, charming story that I am sure most girls from age 9 to 13 would love to read.
Helen Page, Cheltenham, VIC
Careful What You Wish For by Maureen McCarthy is a clever and sensitive story told with insight and humour. Ruth Craze is an 11-year-old girl who thinks that her life could be much better than it is. She is the middle child of three and has an older brother who teases her and a younger brother who is still at preschool. She feels she’s the ‘overlooked’ middle child. Her parents are a little eccentric, her house is run-down and to add to her upset, her school friends are ignoring her. When Ruth’s favourite person, her aunt Mary Ellen dies, she finally understands the magic of Rodney the Rat, a treasure her aunt had given her. Rodney isn’t real - but is he? Rodney, with his magically creative ideas and unusual sense of humour offers Ruth three chances to create her perfect life. ‘If for some reason, you don’t like where you’ve ended up, you can return. But if you choose to stay longer than one day, you’ll stay in your new life forever.’ Ruth grabs the chance for a perfect life. However, she also discovers that what she thought would be the perfect life doesn’t exactly match the reality. She also comes to understand her aunt’s instruction about Rodney; ‘…and when he stops being… useful…pass him on.’
Readers will no doubt identify with Ruth and her situation. Her character is very believable as are the others, particularly Howard Pope, the class loner who provides unexpected insights into the meaning of friendship and about family life. Rodney is clever and funny in a sharp way. The alternative ‘perfect’ lives that he creates are full of interesting detail and lead the reader to make subtle comparisons with Ruth’s actual life. This is a story about family, friendships and being happy with yourself and your life, told with humour and a touch of magic. It will be enjoyed by readers aged 9 to 12.
Margaret Warner, casual teacher, NSW
This story will appeal to students in mid to final primary years. It deals with the dissatisfaction with home and school life that sometimes occurs in the life of pre-teen children. The central character is Ruth, an almost-twelve-year-old, who is unhappy with her family life as well as her school friendships. She believes that her family are really embarrassing and she resents the limelight that she believes her brothers, one older and one younger, enjoy within the family. She is experiencing difficulties with friends at school and is reluctant to invite her friends’ home as the house is always untidy and chaotic. Ruth is also distraught when her favourite aunt dies from cancer. Her aunt has always been a close friend and mentor and the person in whom she always confided. Prior to her death, Ruth's aunt gives her Rodney, a rat who she presents in a box and is dressed in distinctive clothes. Ruth treasures this present and Rodney sleeps in her bedroom at night and accompanies her when she goes out. However, during one outing her brother grabs Rodney and throws him into a river. Ruth is heartbroken and believes him to be lost forever.
With the help of newly adopted friend, Howard, Ruth eventually recovers Rodney who then reveals his ability to grant three wishes, in an attempt to help Ruth sort out her personal life and differences with family and friends. On all three occasions, Ruth is relocated to a new life scenario but she is dissatisfied with each experience and elects to return to the family she left behind. Consequently she comes to a realisation that perhaps life is not so bad after all and that her family really care for her.
In a classroom setting this book lends itself nicely to being read either independently or as a serial story. As each chapter is read, the students could be asked to write an account of the main storyline or their favourite part and to illustrate it. Alternately, at the conclusion of the story they could be asked to grant an additional wish to Ruth and to write about her experiences in this sequence.
I have read this story to a year 4 class and they really enjoyed it.
Alison Kendal, Kingston, ACT
Though not a keen rat lover I soon found myself quite interested in Rodney who, though a stuffed rat, is able to grant wishes. But there are catches to his wishes which Ruth soon discovers. Ruth is a clever quiet girl who seems to be living in the wrong family, going to the wrong school and has the wrong friends. In short she is unhappy. In the past her aunt has been able to console her and help her through life's little bumps. Unfortunately she is now on her own apart from Rodney. This stuffed rat was given to her by her aunt as she was dying from cancer. From the start Rodney is no ordinary stuffed toy; he seems to understand Ruth and he does offer her an ear for her rantings and railings against a world which is increasingly at odds with what she wants. After a disastrous shopping trip with her friends she now has none, and after a family trip to the country and an argument with her brother she no longer has Rodney. Her life is only getting worse, but there is more. Feeling particularly aggrieved she refuses to attend a cycling event where her brother will be competing, telling a blatant lie to stay home. Instead she and a school misfit end up on a train and a mission to locate the lost Rodney. Rodney is no longer the rat he was; he has taken on a life-like persona and offers Ruth the chance of a new life. She can have three goes at it but must come back through the red door by the end of the day to reject the new life or stay there forever.
Ruth learns that she must be quite specific with her request to Rodney because otherwise she finds her family is too protective, too neat , too loving and minus her brothers. The novelty of this life wears off and becomes very claustrophobic, she finds the red door and returns to the river bank and another chance at a new life. The next life is more to her liking, a catholic girls’ boarding school of the 1950s. But life is very strange and quite difficult for Ruth and when she inadvertently gets her new friend Bridie into trouble they are forced to find the red door but only Ruth can return. In her last new life Ruth discovers she is a brainbox on a TV quiz show. She is treated to the best of everything, put up in an expensive hotel, life seems wonderful. But when the TV show meets her family and seems set on humiliating them by filming them as daggy as they are in their rundown house with mess everywhere Ruth realises that it is her family who are the most important things in the world to her and she will do anything to stop them being made fun of, even giving up this great new life. She has just seconds to spare as she searches for the red door which again returns her to her real world. This time it is Ruth who has changed, her journeys have taught her that weird and embarrassing as her family are they are her family and she needs them.
An enjoyable story for 10-14 year olds, with lots of scope for classroom discussion about families and friendships and what values are most important.
Lorene Furmage, Tasmania