W.H. Beck is an elementary school librarian by day and a middle-grade writer by night (well, actually, very early mornings). She lives and reads in Wisconsin, sharing her home and books with a husband, two sons, and a sneaky dog. MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) is her first novel.
Previous books include the FOLLOW THAT FOOD CHAIN (Lerner, 2009) series, a choose-your-own-adventure interactive look at different habitats, and DR. KATE: ANGEL ON SNOWSHOES, a regional biography about one of first doctors in the northwoods of Wisconsin.
What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction?
My favorite thing about middle- grade fiction is the same thing I love about middle- grade kids: they’re funny, they’re serious, they’re unexpected, they’re full of truth about what’s really important in the world. I love working with middle-grade kids because they’re sophisticated enough to think deeply about what they believe in, yet at the same time, a clever joke about toilets is always appreciated.
Why do you write middle-grade?
I write middle-grade because that’s how my writing comes out. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, but I do feel like that’s my voice and an age I connect with. Middle -grade books have always been my favorites, even long after I had “outgrown” them. They’re why I became a teacher—and an elementary school librarian.
You’ve written a lot of nonfiction. What led you to write a novel?
Novel writing—middle -grade novel writing, in particular—has always been my first love and aspiration. It just took a while for me to learn how to write a novel that was worth reading!
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy writing nonfiction. I love learning new things and sharing that information with others. In fact, MALCOLM came about because of the nonfiction research I was doing for my FOLLOW THAT FOOD CHAIN series. It struck me that animals can do so many amazing things—they kind of have super powers, really. What if I wrote a mystery about an animal who used his “superpowers” to prove his innocence?
I did make a conscious decision to set aside my nonfiction writing, though. It was a gamble—I turned down some nonfiction offers to finish MALCOLM. I know that sounds crazy, but one of the things I learned was that I only have time for one writing project at a time. And if I really wanted to be a middle- grade novelist, then I needed to give it a chance.
As you were writing, did you imagine there would be illustrations? How involved were you in the decision and in the process?
Part of my own writing process is drawing doodles of my characters and settings, so I did dream that it might be illustrated someday (although I would definitely have “settled” for just publication!).
When I sold MALCOLM, I was lucky enough to have more than one publisher interested in it. As I spoke to the different editors, Kate O’Sullivan told me not only did Houghton Mifflin want to have it illustrated, but Brian Lies had already read it and wanted to work on it. Well, I almost fell over—I actually teach Brian’s bat books with the first graders in my library! So I knew his work, and I knew that he’d be perfect for my critters.
As far as input into the process, Brian and I didn’t talk directly until the whole book was pretty much finished. When he had questions, he’d ask our editor and she’d relay them to me. I’d see snippets of his work, but mostly, I tried to stay out of his way and let him do his magic. The only thing I did request (through my agent and editor) was that, even though it’s not stated explicitly in the text, Amelia was Amelia Vang—and she was Hmong. This was important to me because I really wanted to honor some of my students who don’t often get to see themselves in the books they read.
Brian and I finally met for the first time last fall at some book events. It’s been great fun swapping stories about how we went about working on the book. It turns out we have a lot in common, and I now count him as a friend.
Why an iguana?
I don’t know where Aggy came from! There is an iguana that my kids visit at our local pet store, so maybe that’s it. Other animals are easier to trace. My dad raised oscar fish while I was growing up; my brother’s fifth grade teacher had a hedgehog; my own sixth grade classroom had a tarantula; and Beert came from a talk on owls at a nearby nature center.
How did you come up with the unique point of view?
I went through many, many, MANY different starts to this book, but I wasn’t happy with any of them. I knew the main events of the mystery, but the telling of it felt flat. One of the things I sometimes do to help me learn about my characters is write letters from each of them, explaining the outcome of the story—why they did what they did. When I wrote Amelia’s, it just felt right, and the whole story finally started to flow.
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, what would it be?
That reading is fun. I certainly hope readers take away more—like not letting people label you and that you can choose to be the kind of person you want to be—but I’ve done some recent thinking about why I write funny talking animal stories, and what it comes down to is that I want kids to READ. I believe to be an adult with choices, you need to be a reader, and the only way to become a reader is to read. A lot. And it’s so much easier to practice something if you find enjoyment in it.
What books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT?
Leave a comment to be entered in a giveaway for a signed copy of MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT and a cute little stuffed rat. Enter by midnight (how appropriate) on Wednesday, January 16. The winner will be announced on Thursday, January 17.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS. In her former life as a scientist, she poked at the insides of many rodents. These days, she can be found trembling on a kitchen chair whenever a mouse finds its way into her house.