Percy came to live with us after Eric was hired to illustrate Rachel Cosgrove Payes's The Wicked Witch of Oz. Percy was to play a large part in the book, and Eric felt strongly that one reason Percy had not been much loved in Hidden Valley of Oz was because Hidden Valley illustrator Dirk Gringhuis drew the original Percy (in Eric's words) "like a deformed guinea pig."
|Dirk's Percy form HIDDEN VALLEY (1951)|
Eric determined to redeem Percy, to make him both look like a real rat and to make him a likable character. Percy was to play such a large part in the book that Eric thought photo research would not properly suffice, so he headed to the pet store and bought a rat. At the pet store Eric watched the assortment of rats, checking out their personalities, finally selecting "Percy" from the ratty riff-raff.
Eric sketched Percy, taught Percy to "pose," after a fashion, by placing food on top of the cage so Percy would stand on his hind legs. So not only did the illustrations of Percy in Wicked Witch look a lot more like a real rat - but the personality of this "real" Percy came through as well.
One thing to note about drawing rats from life is that male rats have rather large balls. Eric wanted to remain true to life, so there is a good deal of rat-scrotum in the book, though Eric kept poses as clean as possible for the most part, as in the fine illustration above.
The picture I remember the most about was the title page/frontispiece spread. Eric had drawn a life-sketch of the real Percy sleeping and decided to use it in the book. He then decided that it would be a fine title-page spread and he could fill up the space, and sort of tell a little story, if there were a lot of rat paw-prints. Eric needed some reference for rat prints so he dipped Percy's feet in blue watercolor and let him walk around on white paper. Eventually Eric got some good prints and Percy got a rat treat.
I think Rachel was pleased that Eric got a real rat to help him with the book. Rachel much liked rats. Eric got Percy in July 1992, and we had him for about seven months. Percy succumbed to a respiratory infection in early 1993. No rat ever had a better memorial than The Wicked Witch of Oz. So long, kiddo!
Illustrations from THE WICKED WITCH OF OZ copyright © 1993 Eric Shanower. All rights reserved.