Reminiscent of Ken Oppel’s Sunwing – a story of bats and their misuse in World War II research – A. T. Balsara’s The Great and the Small also features a laboratory, but in this story the misuse is imposed on rats. Neither bats nor rats are puppies or ponies – both are unlikely heroes to the human population – but in the end our empathy is swayed. In part this is accomplished through the whimsical illustrations that run through the text.
Balsara’s storyline develops in a city market and the tunnels running beneath it, and occasionally the setting shifts to a nearby suburban neighbourhood where humans live and the laboratory exists. The underworld of the city is populated by a colony of rats under the thumb of their leader, the “Beloved Chairman,” who convinces them to spread the bubonic plague anew in retaliation for the cruel treatment of rats caught among market stalls. His curious nephew, Fin, develops doubts about the plan and literally falls into a relationship with a young girl named Ananda. She happens to be bullied at school and she’s the daughter of the laboratory researcher. So the stage is set for adventure, a ratty love story, and rebellion.
This book challenges the usual categories with respect to target audience. In some ways it reminds of Sunwing, and it would appeal to middle grade youth. Books for these readers usually feature adolescent protagonists who face their first big choices. There’s a metaphorical dragon to be slain. As challenges are met, they grow in self-acceptance, confidence and wisdom. As they leave childhood behind, they discover how the larger, unknown world works and find ways to understand the human condition. Since these stories are written to elicit empathy of readers for the protagonists, readers usually learn (if only vicariously) about making choices and succeeding against the odds, and they learn important life-lessons. The Great & the Small reveals Ananda’s responses to bullying and idealism, and it also leads to her self-acceptance and more responsible confidence and actions. Elements of the story appeal to the developmental stage of adolescents.
In other ways, this book suits the young adult (YA) category of readers where the problems faced by protagonists are more complex and often enter challenging areas (such as death) and sexual/love explorations, although Balsara delves more deeply into the former. This is also the developmental stage where youth begin to form logical systems and hypotheses, explore abstract ideas, and focus on possibilities rather than realities. In large part, the story runs along a dual plotline: rat Fin’s for peace and Ananda’s for rebellion against cruelty to the rats. Balsara prefaces chapters with vivid quotes from Stalin’s rule and from the era of the14th century plague. These sombre quotations introduce another element requiring developmental maturity. However, the numerous, finely wrought illustrations counterbalance the dark quotes. The Great & the Small bridges the abilities of both middle and YA readers.
In a radio interview, Balsara said The Great & the Small shares messages of hope, resilience, and perseverance with young people. Its theme – good vs. evil – pits blind obedience against rebellion. And, she suggested she wants to remind readers about dark periods of history from which we can learn.
Balsara has written an ambitious book in which she combines issues relevant to young readers within the larger context of history, a history of cruelty and blind obedience, in which few rebel. From time-to-time, the “lesson” she advances feels too didactic for my taste, but that aside, she has created a moving and heartfelt story in which a young girl stands up for what she believes and a rat who eventually recognizes a painful truth and grows up.
FYI: Book trailer
Available through your local bookstore or online: The Great & the Small