Thursday, February 7, 2013

Malcolm at Midnight, by W.H. Beck

My love affair with animal stories continues. In this excellent MG novel, Malcolm the rat becomes the 5th grade pet at McKenna School, only he's such a small rat that everyone thinks he's a mouse. Rats, of course, are normally despised by humans, but even the other class pets at McKenna think rats are "skuzzy garbage-eaters who lie and cheat." The pets, you see, all leave their cages after hours and gather as The Midnight Academy, named for the hour at which they meet, supposedly to protect the school. We have Aggy the kindergarten iguana, who (wearing a pair of red glasses possibly belonging to the librarian) is the leader, followed by the rabbit Honey Bunny (who will allow only Aggy to call him that), a hermit crab, a fish, and other assorted school pets. They all think Malcolm is a mouse, and this is crucial for his survival in the short run. But in the long run, Malcolm aspires to not be one of those skuzzy garbage-eaters. Malcolm's greatest desire is to be a rat of "valor and merit."

"Never speak to humans" is one of the Midnight Academy rules, but Malcolm can't help but love Amelia, the 5th grade "nutter" (the animals' term for the kids) with whom he spends the most time and who guesses least some of his abilities with communication. Some of the other nutters, and even a few lankies (adults), aren't so bad either, so when it turns out that there really IS something to protect the school from, Malcolm is determined to take action. "Action" means saving the kids from the the wicked animal on the fourth floor, an abandoned cat they call Snip who wears a too-tight collar and schemes to poison the school's water supply at the biggest event of the school year. It also means having to do what he can from outside the Midnight Academy, since Aggy the iguana has also turned up missing, and the rest of the animals, having learned that Malcolm is a rat, expect he's at the bottom of it.

All of the characters, human and animal, are well drawn, and even Snip's backstory is so sad that it makes her villainy heart-wrenching. I kept wanting to gather her up and make a nice kitty-cat out of her again, but I also found in her story a reminder that if we choose to "go bad" due to pain in our past lives, it is indeed our choice.

Some of the specific action in Snip's plot I found to be a little farfetched for even a personified animal,  but all in all this is an engrossing story with excellent characters and an inspiring valuation of "valor and merit." Highly recommended -- also keep this book in mind for a younger child who is reading beyond grade level but maybe isn't ready for a lot of human emotional angst or near-YA situations.

10 comments:

Vijaya said...

Sounds wonderful. The plot feels oddly similar to Desperaux ... Regardless, this would be a wonderful read for our family. Thanks for spotlighting this book.

Faith E. Hough said...

This has been on my list for a while, but as usual your review is the thing that convinces me. It sounds like something my girls would love.

Bish Denham said...

Okay, I'm going to put this on my to read list, because I love animal stories too!

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- I'd actually have to go back and reread Desperaux. I think your family will like this.

Faith -- Yours too. :)

Bish -- And I thought of you right away!

Janet said...

I've never heard of this one. Sounds very interesting! Thanks for the review, I'll see if our library has it.

Mary Witzl said...

I have missed your reviews! This sounds like a great story, in spite of a bad cat protagonist (and I hope that Snip's too-tight collar eventually got snipped!). I like animal stories and also find rats endearing, so this is a book I'll look out for.

Marcia said...

Janet -- Hope you enjoy it!

Mary -- So glad to "see" you! I guess I like cats so much that I like even the villainous ones. :)

Emily R. King said...

Great review. I think it would be perfect for my nephew. Thanks for the rec, Marcia!

Marcia said...

Emily -- Don't you love when we find a book and say, "That would be just perfect for ___"?

Medeia Sharif said...

I don't read too many books with animal characters, but this one sounds charming. Thanks for sharing it.