Archive for June 5, 2013

Malcolm at Midnight

Written by W.H. Beck

Illustrated by Brian Lies

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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 (

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.

  • Malcolm at MidnightTitle: Malcolm at Midnight
  • Written by W.H. Beck
  • Illustrated by Brian Lies
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
  • Reviewer: Heather L. Montgomery
  • Hardcover/ 272 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0547681009
  • Genre: Novel, contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Lexile Score: 700

The Center of Everything

Written by Linda Urban

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Ruby Pepperdine stands in the center of a chalk-drawn circle at the Bunning Day parade and waits to read her winning essay in front of the whole town. Today may be the celebration of the late Captain Bunning (town founder and inventor of the donut hole), but Ruby’s more preoccupied with the hole in her heart. She’s supposed to be the girl everyone can count on, the one who figures things out. But now everything is messed up. Her best friend, Lucy, is mad at her. She has insulted Nero, the inquisitive boy who only wanted to help. And, worst of all, she still grieves for her grandmother, Gigi, and feels guilty because she didn’t listen to her when she had the chance.

Ruby would do anything to travel back in time and fix her mistakes. That’s why she’s pinning her hopes on this essay and the wish she made on her twelfth birthday. Flashbacks explain the events that led up to this moment, and now, as Ruby waits for the parade to reach her, she feels this is her last chance make herself whole again.

This warm, intelligent book offers more reflection than action and is just right for fifth graders who are beginning to make connections between themselves and the world around them. The story’s non-linear plot and alternate points-of-view will strengthen their reading skills. Urban creates realistic characters that middle-grade readers can relate to and nails the small-town feel of (fictional) Bunning, New Hampshire. With themes of friendship, family, destiny, and its circular imagery (from donuts to color wheels and concentric pond ripples), this is a recommended choice for a book club or classroom reading groups. (

  • Center of EverythingTitle: The Center of Everything
  • Author: Linda Urban
  • Publisher: Harcourt Children’s Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Hardcover: 197 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-76348-4
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction
  • Lexile Score: 670
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