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Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: August in Review

Malcolm at Midnight: W. H. Beck & Brian Lies

Book: Malcolm at Midnight
Author: W. H. Beck (@whbeck)
Illustrator: Brian Lies
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12 

I sat down to read a few pages of Malcolm at Midnight, and found myself completely drawn in. I finished it the same day. Malcolm at Midnight is a very fun middle grade fantasy novel written by first-time author W. H. Beck. It is extensively illustrated (at least a couple of half-page sketches per chapter) by "Bat Books" author Brian Lies. 

Malcolm at Midnight is the tale of an undersized rat who becomes the fifth grade class pet at McKenna School. Exploring on his first night in residence, Malcolm discovers a secret society of class pets that looks after the interests of the school. Malcolm is eager to contribute to the Midnight Academy, but has to overcome the considerable stigma of being, well, a rat. And when Academy head Aggy, an iguana, is apparently kidnapped, Malcolm strives to prove his innocence and rescue Aggy before she gets too cold. 

Malcolm is a charming character, a bit insecure (the whole rat thing), but also brave, and determined to do the right thing. His friendship with Amelia, a girl from Mr. Binney's class, is (in the context of the book) plausible and inspiring. Malcolm's underdog status will make kids open their hearts to him, while his hair-raising adventures will keep them turning the pages to make sure that everything works out ok.  

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:

"It began with a rat. There was also a glasses-wearing elderly iguana, a grumpy fish who could spell, a ghost in the clock tower, a secret message in the library, and a twisted evil that lived on the fourth floor of our school. But those'll come later. First, there was a rat: Malcolm." (Page 1)

If that's not an opening passage to draw kids in, I don't know what is.

"Malcolm felt like the conversation was going too fast, like when Jenna reads aloud in class and it sounds like allthewordsaretypedtogetherwithoutanyspaces. Malcolm was still a few sentences back." (Page 31)

"Have you ever known a person like that, Mr. Binney? Someone who just listens? Someone who doesn't interrupt or pipe in with their opinion or wince at your dumb mistakes? Anyway, it's one of the most wonderful and satisfying things to have." (Page 100)

Insightful, yes? Beck also makes extensive use of footnotes (72 in all). Many of them are for the purpose of defining advanced vocabulary words, while others are to explain some background information to Mr. Binney. I found the footnotes entertaining, if occasionally distracting. Here's one funny one:

"44 Don't feel too bad that you didn't smell and notice what Malcolm and Tank could. Human noses are about as sensitive as a bunch of boys around a crying girl." (Page 121)

I did have a minor problem with the narrative device that W. H. Beck employed for Malcolm at Midnight. The story is directed towards fifth grade teacher Mr. Binney, written by an unnamed kid or kids from the class. I found that the occasional "and then you did xyz" passages took me out of the story a bit. I had to stop and think about who we were talking to. Directing the story to Mr. Binney also adds a level of remove between the reader and book. But this device does allow the author to give readers a peek at the kids in the class, even though the main story concerns Malcolm. And there is an appealing quirkiness to it that I think will work for kids. 

The choice of Brian Lies as illustrator for Malcolm at Midnight was flat-out inspired. Using the same attention to detail that he gives to the bats in his picture book series, Lies brings Malcolm and the other animals to life. I especially loved Tank the Turtle. The illustrations are well-integrated with the text. In one section, where a pipe goes down from one level to the next, the picture starts at the top of one page and finishes along the bottom of the next, with plenty of room in between for the words. While strictly speaking one could read the story without the pictures, Malcolm at Midnight would be a far less engaging book. 

Malcolm at Midnight would make a great companion book to Elise Broach's Masterpiece (the story of an unlikely friendship between a young beetle named Marvin and an eleven-year-old boy). It would also be a nice classroom read-aloud for the upper elementary school grades (though a good idea to have extra copies floating around so that kids could look at the pictures). All in all, Malcolm at Midnight is a highly entertaining and kid-friendly book, a story that gives rats a good name. Highly recommended. 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (@hmhkids)
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).