12 Jan 2020

Rodent Book Club - Sunshine Stories by Jutta Sieverding, 1981

This book is an immediate favourite for me. It’s a children's book, a very honest portrayal of life with a pet rat told over a series of short anecdotes. Sunshine is a male lab rat who is taken home by a young woman as a pet. While his owner is learning to care for a rat, he is learning to BE a rat and experience natural behaviours like building nests, learning to enjoy a pat and sit on shoulders, stealing slurps of coffee and playing with things he shouldn’t. I absolutely think these stories are true anecdotes, the behaviours of Sunshine are just so typically ‘rat’! 

The story really highlights the changes in rat husbandry in the last 40 years. Sunshine is kept as a lone rat, which was very common at the time! I’ve met so many parents who’ve come to the rescue to get rats for their family, reminiscing about a lone rat they had back in the 70’s or 80’s, often an ex class pet.
Sunshine’s diet was described as “wheat and apple”, which is consistent with rat and mouse care books from the 80’s, before we knew as much as we do now about rat dietary requirements. The book is a great example of how care standards are constantly evolving as knowledge improves!

Something else that interested me about Sunshine Stories was the perception of rats. This has been a subject of interest for me for a long time, my year 10 major project back in 2009 (oh wow) was actually on the perception of rats in society and the way they’re portrayed in media! I guess I’ve always been a bit of a nerd for rat knowledge.
Sunshine is portrayed as a sweet pet in a regular household, and that’s a delightful surprise!
There isn’t as much fictional content about rats from this period which normalise rats as pets, versus the amount that portray rats in a negative light such as in horror movies like the classic Willard, 1971 and Ben, 1972. A “not quite negative but still stigmatised” view of pet rats is that they’re commonly depicted as a part of fringe cultures like the punk movement, or the companions of social outcasts. The first time I ever contemplated rats as a pet was seeing one on the shoulder of a punk in the opening scenes of the 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys. 9 months of obsessive research and showing my mum cute rat pictures later, and Widdie and Deo joined my life. I was 13 years old, and Sunshine Stories is a very genuine, straightforward and charming collection of anecdotes that evokes a strong nostalgia for that time. 

One sentence summary: A charming and heartfelt anecdote of having a pet rat in the 80’s, written up as a children’s book.
Worth reading if: You have 2 minutes and want to smile.

By Rachel Greenfield

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