November 12, 2012

We smell a rat

By W.H. Beck
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Malcolm is a runt of a rat, enough so that he's mistaken for a mouse and brought from the Pet Emporium to Mr. Binney's fifth-grade classroom. Once there he befriends some students and also discovers the Midnight Academy, an after-hours gathering of all the class pets who work together to keep the school's “nutters,” or kids, safe. The Academy's disdain for rats keeps Malcolm in hiding about who he really is, and suspicious of Honey Bunny, a rabbit with a giant chip on his shoulder. The Academy claims “a critter reveals his true self at midnight,” when the faculty and students aren't around. When the school is faced with a crisis, will Malcolm step forward?

Malcolm at Midnight is an interesting mash-up of a middle-grade novel. First-time author W.H. Beck combines many beloved themes—intelligent animals, secret clubs, middle school melodrama—into a fine-tuned noir mystery. Snip the cat is evil enough to star in an animal remake of Cape Fear, yet the story of his youth makes him sympathetic (to a degree). And the plot against the school is genuinely creepy and similar to things kids may have heard about on the news. That said, the book also has a winning sense of humor—the story is told in the form of a note left for Mr. Binney by an anonymous student, and is lavishly footnoted with side commentary, including definitions of classroom vocabulary words. Beck finds comic relief in the scariest moments, as when Malcolm is scooped up by a barn owl—instead of becoming a rat-kebab, he manages to help the owl: “In nature, a friendship like this is usually permanently damaged by one friend eating the other.”

Brian Lies’ illustrations bring both the action and the quieter moments to life. Malcolm at Midnight is ultimately a story about identity and inclusion, but kids will get that message along with a spoonful of adventure, a smart whodunit and several laughs. This one's a winner.

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