• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Giveaways > MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT: Interview and Giveaway with W.H. Beck
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    January 15, 2013: After the Call

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    January 2, 2013: On the Big Screen

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MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT: Interview and Giveaway with W.H. Beck

Giveaways, Interviews

W.H. Beck

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.


Watch the Book Trailer!

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!).

Malcolm sketch

My first sketch of Malcolm

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.

Midnight academy

Malcolm at Midnight artwork by Brian Lies (http://www.brianlies.com), courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

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?




School stories: anything by Andrew Clements, BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT, FLYING SOLO, the ORIGAMI YODA books, THE BOY PROJECT



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.



  1. Linda Andersen  •  Jan 14, 2013 @5:04 am

    Jacqueline, this is an awesome interview with a look into what influenced the writing process, writing exercises, the art, a trailer, recommended book titles, and more. Thanks W.H. for sharing delightful details about your journey. Congratulations on your success with nonfiction and fiction. Wonderful!

  2. Suzanne Johnson  •  Jan 14, 2013 @7:23 am

    So glad Brian Lies illustrated this story. His work draws the reader deeper into a story with respect for each species’ gifts and abilities. Knowing more about the author always makes a story even better! Hope there will be more collaborations between the two.

  3. Jill  •  Jan 14, 2013 @7:56 am

    Great interview.
    I especially liked the answer to “why do you write middle grade fiction?”. No science to it…just the natural way it flows :)

  4. Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard  •  Jan 14, 2013 @8:20 am

    I hadn’t heard of this book, but after reading the interview and seeing the wonderful illustration, I will have to check it out! I loved hearing about Ms. Beck’s writing process, particularly the idea of writing letters from the characters’ point of view in order to figure out how to write the book. I wish Ms. Beck great success with her first book!

  5. Brenda  •  Jan 14, 2013 @8:41 am

    Wonderful interview. I especially love the list of recommended books and insight into your path with your new book. Are there more books planned about Malcolm?

  6. Sandy  •  Jan 14, 2013 @9:28 am

    Malcolm is such a likable rat,and that comes from a non-rodent loving person. I read this as a library copy and would love to win my own. The Brian Lies illustrations are incredible but no less so than these well-developed characters and intriguing pot.
    Great interview!

  7. Alexandra Loewen  •  Jan 14, 2013 @12:11 pm

    I really enjoyed this interview…so many wonderful insights! In particular I was fascinated with W.H.’s background in nonfiction writing for kids, as well as the behind-the-scenes of the publication process of her new book. I will definitely look for this book now.

  8. JenP  •  Jan 14, 2013 @12:13 pm

    Lovely interview–Great list of recommended books, too.

  9. Gerri Lanier  •  Jan 14, 2013 @1:46 pm

    * What a great interview! Thank you. Wonderful that W.H. Beck shared so much about her writing process. The artwork is just as amazing!

  10. Hillary Homzie  •  Jan 14, 2013 @2:24 pm

    Great interview! I’m looking forward to reading this one.

  11. L  •  Jan 14, 2013 @5:03 pm

    I love Lies work and how awesome to have had him on board with the story. I really enjoyed this interview, but two things really solidified it for me in desiring to support this author and book. The insistence on creating a character for oft underrepresented Readers (the Hmong) and the desire to make reading fun.

  12. Margaret  •  Jan 14, 2013 @7:03 pm

    Ditto the comment about the great list of recommended books. I loved Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I’m looking forward to reading Malcolm at Midnight.

  13. Holly Mueller  •  Jan 14, 2013 @7:57 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this book! Love the cover. Great interview!

  14. Notti Thistledore  •  Jan 14, 2013 @8:03 pm

    What a lovely interview. I completely agree about the wonder of MG: to me it’s the most flexible genre of all. Some of the most wonderfully creative, endlessly experimental fiction at the moment is coming out of MG.

  15. Hazel Mitchell  •  Jan 14, 2013 @8:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing your ideals and sacrifices. It’s always interesting to hear the choices writers and artists have to make to create a work that their heart is truly aligned with. I love Brian Lies artwork! Best to you and look forward to seeing what you do next.

  16. Kami Kinard  •  Jan 14, 2013 @8:45 pm

    I love this book and would love to have a signed copy! Thanks for sharing your letter writing strategy Becky!

  17. Mariska  •  Jan 14, 2013 @10:02 pm

    Is this open internationally ? if yes, please count my name in.
    it’ll be a great gift to my son :D

  18. Dianna Winget  •  Jan 14, 2013 @11:24 pm

    I’d love to read Malcolm at Midnight! Even if I don’t win, it’s still on my list. It reminds me of Kate DiCamillo’s “Tale of Desperaux” (Sorry if it’s spelled incorrectly, but I’m going on memory :)

  19. Bruce Luck  •  Jan 14, 2013 @11:33 pm

    I love talking animals. In the project I’m working on, the main character is a dog who narrates the story.

  20. Sarah Albee  •  Jan 15, 2013 @4:46 am

    Great interview, can’t wait to read the book. Nice to “meet” a fellow MG writer who writes both NF and fiction!

  21. Marilyn  •  Jan 15, 2013 @6:46 am

    I love that your characters were inspired by animals in your life! Can’t wait to read Malcolm at Midnight!

  22. Audrey Vernick  •  Jan 15, 2013 @7:04 am

    Thanks for the great interview. I feel relatively certain that I would have enjoyed fifth grade a LOT more if there had been a hedgehog in my class–lucky brother!

  23. Maria Gianferrari  •  Jan 15, 2013 @9:00 am

    I can’t wait to read this–thanks for sharing your writing inspiration tips too! I’m going to try out that letter strategy today!

    I love that the hero is a rat! Our pet rat, Sky, died last year, and we’re preparing to move, so we’ve put off getting another, but come summer time, we hope to have two new rat additions to the family. They’re wonderful, intelligent and affectionate pets.

  24. Renee  •  Jan 15, 2013 @12:19 pm

    This was an interesting interview. It’s always interesting to hear about other authors’ processes. And the art work is stunning.

  25. Madelyn Rosenberg  •  Jan 15, 2013 @8:13 pm

    I have been a huge fan of animal stories ever since Mrs. Frisby. Nice interview. And nice message.

  26. PragmaticMom  •  Jan 15, 2013 @10:05 pm

    My daughter would love your book!