Written by W.H. Beck
Illustrated by Brian Lies
Any child who has dreamed of communing with the animals will be entranced by Malcolm at Midnight, a charming novel which will find its way onto many fifth grade reading lists. This first novel by W. H. Beck portrays a world full of talking animals (class pets who leave their cages at night) who form the Midnight Academy to protect the humans at their school.
The hero of the story, Malcolm, is a rat. He’s the most personable rat you have ever met, and a clever one at that; Malcolm knows how to read. Endearing illustrations by Brian Lies will make you love him even more. As Malcolm settles into his new life at school, he faces the usual challenges – a nasty stereotype, a bully, a club into which he strives to be accepted – and the not so usual – the ghost of McKenna School.
When the club leader, a wise iguana who wears red reading glasses, disappears and Malcolm becomes the main suspect, he is forced to turn to “nutters” (children) for help. But Malcolm has grander problems than a hulking cat and an angry gang of pets on the loose. This tender-heart cringes whenever someone refers to his kind as “skuzzy rat finks.” You see, under-sized Malcolm has been mistaken for a cute mouse, and he has not yet owned up to his own rattiness. In order to become the “rat of valor and merit” of his dreams, Malcolm must prove the value of his own kind, first to himself and then to others.
Beck’s clever use of footnotes keeps the reader guessing about who the narrator actually is while also offering definitions of unknown words disguised as classroom vocabulary. Students will particularly enjoy the similes and metaphors referencing universal challenges (dealing with a hyper classmate), tough issues (letting down your teacher) and familiar settings (the smell of the lunch room). This nearly seemless portrayal of school life makes sense when you learn that the author is a school librarian. A true educator, Beck provides a number of resources to enhance school curriculum, including a school floor plan, a trailer, author interviews and a teaching guide on her website (http://www.whbeck.com/).
Because it addresses self-worth and standard school issues, Malcolm at Midnight is a great read for those on the fifth grade reading level, including younger readers who are not ready for heavier content. This book will also work well as a classroom or family read aloud.