Mighty Mouse: Malcolm at Midnight by W.H. Beck
I found the following note and story on my desk when I came in to work one morning. Who wrote it? Well, I have my ideas...
Mr. Mark Binney, fifth grade teacher
Dear Mr. Binney,
You asked us how that ring came to be on your desk the morning after the Dedication Day Carnival. You said we could leave you an anonymous note. That you just wanted--needed--to know. Well, it took a while, but here it is. Some parts you may recognize; some parts might get you mad. But all of it is true.
A lot happens in a school when the teachers aren't looking.
With W. H. Beck's first novel, Malcolm at Midnight (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), to say that Malcolm's life is a cliff-hanger is an understatement. Rejected by purchasers of python-fodder rats because he's the runt of his litter, Malcolm is in luck when a commission-craving pet store clerk passes him off as a mouse to make the sale to fifth-grade teacher Mr. Binney. Malcolm has no choice except to go with the mouse thing and finds himself fortunately transported into a pampered life as a class pet living in a plush rodent habitat. His rodent chow is way more edible than the sawdusty pellets at the pet store, and doting fifth graders even ply their new pet "mouse" with the occasional raspberry Pop-Tart or peanut butter cracker crumbs. Malcolm finds that he enjoys Mr. Binney's lessons and soon discovers that he can read, leading him to form a friendship with one of the students, Amanda. He also has another discovery: his posh cage has an easily disarmed latch, and for a nocturnal rodent, free range exploration is mouse, er, rat heaven.
Malcolm's midnight rambles soon lead him to discover the Midnight Academy, a society of school pets dedicted to the preservation of McKenna School and the well-being of the nutters (students) and lankies (staff) who depend upon it. Although several members, notably Honey Bunny, a large Kindergarten rabbit, express some doubts as to his mouse credentials, Malcolm becomes a novice pledge, taken under the wing (actually within curve of her impressive tail) of the venerable leader, Aggy the iguana. Hamsters Billy (the Kid) and Jesse (James) take Malcolm on midnight tours to show him the ropes, and Malcolm feels that even impersonating a mouse, he has found a place where he belongs. Listening to Mr. Binney's admonition to his kids to be "the best fifth grader you can be," Malcolm is determined to be the "best rat he can be." But that task proves harder than he thought.
Something is going wrong in McKenna School. As the big Dedication Day Carnival approaches, Malcolm notices a cascade of strange events. Mr. Binney seems to have lost the little sapphire ring he's been keeping in a tiny jewel box in his pocket. Exploring the mysterious unused fourth floor, Malcolm meets, not the reputed moaning ghost of the clock tower, but a more serious scourge of McKenna, the malevolent and shunned cat Snip, whose evil aim, aside from eating Malcolm, of course, is to destroy the community of pet animals and the students as well. But to be the best rat he can be, Malcolm knows that he has to go rogue himself and uncover the frightening secrets afoot on that dark and dusty fourth floor. What he discovers is more than a mere cat-and-mouse threat, but a plot between Snip and an unknown accomplice to sicken and perhaps destroy nutters and lankies and the very community that is McKenna School.
A mouse-sized hero is not new to children's literature, but Malcolm is a worthy successor to Timothy in O'Connor's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Avi's Poppy, DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux, and Hildegard of Lowry's Bless This Mouse. Convinced of his rat lineage by Clyde, scarred denizen of the dumpster, Malcolm determines to make the most of his rattiness--agility, tenacity, and his ability to survive, and survive he does--nearly being rendered by Beert, the barn owl "ghost" of the tower, snared by Snip repeatedly, and finally using the automatic toilet flusher to send himself down the pipes to arrive in the basement furnace room in time to gnaw his way through the school's rusty pipes and foil the final step of Snip's perfidious plan.
Beck's narrative has it all, impeccable storytelling, with adventure after adventure tumbling through the chapters toward an inevitable but still surprising climax, great character development from the annoying Kiera, gossip-monger of Mr. Binney's class, the library aquarium fish Oscar who begins by trying to eat Malcolm's tail and becomes his wisest mentor, Ms. Grumble-the-Bumble, the custodian who provides an unexpected romantic twist to the plot (remember that missing ring that turns up on Mr. Binney's desk?), and even the unredeemed and seemingly irredeemable Snip, whose malevolent warped mind is the result of a sadly missed communication twenty years before, discovered too late to save her from her self-inflicted but well deserved end.
Unforgettable and universal animal and human characters and a story in the grandest tradition of animal fantasies, undergirded with a strong double theme of the value of being the best individual we can be and yet part of an ongoing community, amazingly illustrations in pencil and graphite drawings by notable artist Brian Lies, all make Malcolm at Midnight a potential classic, an engaging and enlightening experience for the middle reader, a great read-aloud novel for the classroom, and a must-have for all school libraries. An exceptional first novel by a very promising and already proficient author.