Monday, August 17, 2015

The Past Is Prologue: Malcolm Under the Stars by W. H. Beck

When Malcolm, Mr. Binney's classroom pet rat, learns that his special nutter friend Amanda is moving away, he thinks that is the worst thing that could happen. But that night there is an emergency meeting of the Midnight Society, and his world seems to crumble beneath him.

Honey Bunny's whiskers twitched at Malcolm. Tank the turtle finished in a rush. "They're saying the electrical system may not be up to code. They'll have to rewire the whole school, which will make the boiler room incident look like loose change. The whole thing--well, it was proposed tonight that maybe McKenna's time has come."

It was Malcolm who stepped forward. "Time for what? Repairs?"

Tank pulled his head inside his shell. "It's official now. The school board has scheduled two "listening sessions, where lankies can say what they think. And then they'll vote." Polly the parakeet and Tank exchanged looks. "They're talking about closing the school."

For longer than the memories of any of the classroom pets whose secret Midnight Academy has looked out for the welfare of their school--the lankies (teachers) and the nutters (students)--McKenna Elementary has been their home. Sure, fifth graders graduated, but there were always new nutters who needed them. But now, with major structural problems everywhere, it looked like the city was determined to terminate McKenna Elementary and disperse their own nutters and lankies to two other schools.

But Malcolm and others of the Midnight Academy rally to save the school. They uncover the history behind McKenna, once Clearwater's only high school, and get the nutters to present a program with a plea to preserve the historic school, to rally graduates of the high school and former students to keep it alive. And in the course of their investigations of old high school annuals on a bottom shelf in the library, they uncover a legend, the mysterious philanthropist who funded their now crumbling auditorium and gym, and a series of coded hobo ciphers which hint of a time capsule from 1938 and a "Loaded Stash" that might just cover the cost of the old building's repairs and more. But none of the "Inside critters" currently serving as class pets have memories that go back to that time to help find that stash in time to save their school.

Unless.... Malcolm remembers how he saved Beert the barn owl, trapped in the clock tower, and how Beert had introduced him to some of the "Outside critters" who had helped him save the school from the evil cat Snip's plan to poison the nutters' water supply. Desperate, Malcolm screws up his courage to ask the legendary Striped Shadow across the river in his abandoned factory redoubt for help.

And then...the Shadow tells him that there is one critter living there, one whose memory from kittenhood goes back far enough to link them to the secret of the Stash.

Malcolm can't believe it, but that critter is Snip, the feral cat who haunted McKenna School, the villain he though he had vanquished in the boiler episode, the only one who may know how to find the hidden secret that can save their school and keep the Midnight Academy critters together with their nutters and lankies.

As William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And Malcolm's midnight quest under the stars indeed reveals that the past is still alive, a past that provides a way to a totally surprising ending that promises a future for McKenna Elementary School, in W. H. Beck's eagerly awaited Malcolm Under the Stars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Malcolm, a mere runty ratling who gains entry to Mr. Binney's classroom by pretending mousehood, is the intrepid crusader who leads the way to save his fellow critters' mission to befriend and mentor future nutters on their way to growing up. A engrossing history mystery, with colorful and courageous critter characters and a cast of varied and resourceful kids and teachers who come together to save their community makes for a page-turning adventure that has a lot to say about the courage, perseverance, and initiative it takes to maintain any community.

For a perfect classroom read-aloud, pair this one with its noted prequel, Malcolm at Midnight (see my 2012 review here.)

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