by Lorie Lewis Ham
It is no secret that I love pet rats so it was a lot of fun to review this wonderful children’s book featuring a rat. We also have an interview with author W.H. Beck and at the end of this post are details on how to enter to win an adorable stuffed rat and some Malcolm at Midnight bookmarks.
Malcolm at Midnight By W.H. Beck
I have loved pet rats for many years now, so when I ran across Malcolm at Midnight, even though it was a children’s fiction book, I had to pick it up and read it because Malcolm is a rat.
Malcolm is Mr. Binney’s fifth grade classroom pet. He is a very small rat and is mistaken for a mouse. He quickly learns that once school is out the classroom pets all come out of their cages to patrol and protect the school at night and have a little fun. The pets have their own secret society called The Midnight Academy, with Aggy the iguana the leader. When Malcolm is introduced to the society, they too mistake him for a mouse and after hearing how badly everyone seems to feel about rats, he doesn’t bother correcting them.
One night Aggy disappears and Malcolm becomes a prime suspect, as they have realized he is a rat and they believe rats are awful. Malcolm must find Aggy in order to prove his innocence.
Malcolm is a wonderful character and a great example, not only to children who read this book, but to everyone. He could run away when he is wrongly accused, but instead is determined to do the right thing and prove that rats are not bad. He also wants to help the other pets and the children against the true evil in the school. Malcolm proves that one shouldn’t be judged because of what they are, and also proves how wrong the misconceptions are that many people have of rats in real life.
Because Malcolm is also able to read, this helps him in this adventure and in later sharing his story with some of the children. The story is told from the perspective of the children who know Malcolm, retelling his tale to their teacher.
This was a great debut novel for author W.H. Beck and I hope Malcolm will have more adventures. Rats are too often portrayed in literature as evil and dirty, which they are not. Rats are one of the sweetest, loyal and intelligent pets a person could have. Cheers to Beck for helping to spread the word! And I must not forget the beautiful illustrations by Brian Lies which truly enhance the story.
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W.H. Beck Interview
KRL: How long have you been writing?
WH: My first book, a picture book called Evan Early, came out in 2005, but I’ve been seriously writing for several years before that. Malcolm is the third novel I’ve written…just the first to see publication.
KRL: How did the plot for your book come about?
WH:I tend to write books that I’d enjoy as a reader. I’ve always liked books where there’s a tinge of fantasy–a whole different world, just out of sight. Since my day job is in education (I’m a school librarian), it was natural for me to think of a school as a setting. As for Malcolm…well, keep reading….
KRL: Why rats?
WH: I first got the idea for Malcolm when I was working on a nonfiction series of books about habitats called Follow That Food Chain. It had me researching about 24 different animals for 12 different habitats! In my research, I came across some facts about rats that were amazing–that they can compress their bones to fits through spaces the size of a quarter, gnaw through glass, cement and lead, hold their breath and swim through sewer pipes, survive falls from six stories–and it struck me that rats were really almost like superheroes. However, in almost every kid’s book I could think of, the rat was the bad guy. So I started thinking about a rat hero, one who would have to work against his stereotype and who would use all those ratty superpowers for good.
KRL: Do you or have you ever owned pet rats?
WH: I haven’t. But they sure sound like fun pets!
KRL: Did you have any trouble finding a publisher interested in a book with a rat as the hero?
WH: It’s always difficult finding a publisher, whether you have a rat hero or not!
KRL: Will Malcolm have more adventures?
WH: I hope so! I’ve had a lot of readers worried about what happened to Snip, and I’d like to tell the rest of that story.
KRL: You write this book in a different sort of format than I’ve seen before. Why did you feel this was the best way to write this book?
WH: It is written as a letter from a student to her teacher. It ended up that way from a writing exercise. I was trying to figure out some character issues, so I wrote letters from each of them, explaining why they did what they did in the story. When I wrote Amelia’s, it just felt right. So I went with it. I did figure that the second person point of view, with footnotes! would probably make it a hard sale. But I still wanted to tell the story that way.
KRL Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
WH: Well, anyone who writes about a talking rat probably can’t take themselves too seriously, but I do hope my work has little lasting meaning for readers. I also hope I don’t hit them over the head with it!
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
WH: I work full-time as a school librarian, so I write whenever I get a few minutes, usually early mornings and weekends. As things have gotten busier with the publication of Malcolm, I’ve had to be more vigilant about setting aside time to write and not letting other things creep in.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
WH: I do outline, pretty extensively. The 3-act story structure makes sense in my writing process, so I actually use a bulletin board to plot out scenes within this structure. I also usually keep track of things in a notebook while I write. And, even though I use both of these, there are often times when I get to the end of the draft and realize my whole outline needs to be changed…
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
WH: I did (and I still do!). I think the key is to just keep writing. Don’t let all your hopes and dreams rest on one story, no matter how much you love it. And don’t pin them on being published, either (okay, I know that’s hard to do!). What I mean is, if you focus on your writing–learning, trying new things–you can still be successful, even if it doesn’t get published. And along the way you’ve just made yourself a stronger writer and therefore, more likely to be published.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
WH: Hmmm. I don’t know if I have anything. My favorite was when I got to meet and present with my illustrator, Brian Lies, for the first time.
KRL: Future writing goals?
WH: I’m hard at work on a new novel. I also have a nonfiction picture book manuscript that I hope to see as a book.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
WH: Even though Malcolm at Midnight is about a talking rat in a school, there was a surprising amount of research. I looked into bell towers, what rats could do, feral cats, how long iguanas can live without heat, and school construction. I do a lot of visual research, too, finding pictures of settings and characters to use for inspiration.
KRL: What do you read?
WH: I read a lot (again, school librarian!). About 75% kids’ books–nonfiction, picture books, novels, but I enjoy books for adults, too, especially mysteries.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
WH: Read! Okay, that’s my advice for just about anyone and anything. 🙂 But I do think reading widely in the genre you are writing in is essential.
To enter to win an adorable stuffed rat and Malcolm bookmarks, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Malcolm,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 7, 2013. U.S. residents only.