Why Talking Rats Matter by W.H. Beck

Last Tuesday night, my family and I settled in front of the TV. It felt like a Friday—because of Thanksgiving, no more school or work for the week. We clicked on an episode of one of our current favorites, Once Upon a Time. And as we watched, I brainstormed a list of potential blog topics for this post. It looked like this:

  • Anthropomorphic characters—favorites? Influences?
  • Mysteries
  • How I became a reader
  • How school libraries grow readers
  • How I find time to write while working full-time as a school librarian
  • Stories with school settings


Then the show ended, and my husband switched the channels. On flicked Frontline’s “Poor Kids,” a documentary following three kids and their struggling families in the Quad Cities area of Iowa/Illinois.

And just like that, we were transfixed. All four of us. Way more than the fight scene between Snow White and Prince Charming.

I don’t know what the rest of my family was thinking, but I know what was going through my mind: I know these kids; I have students just like these kids.

From the girl who was embarrassed of her pudgy tummy (because her diet consisted of cheap frozen pizza), to the girl who had to give up her beloved dog to move into a motel, to the boy who had to sit out a football season because he couldn’t afford the equipment, I recognized them all. I saw the third grader who brought his Wimpy Kid back last week, wet and moldy…and who was too dirty himself for me to scold. The fifth grader who moved overnight—without packing up her school supplies, without returning her library books, without saying goodbye. The students who pick up food each Friday so they’ll have enough to eat over the weekend. Some of my sons’ own friends who marvel at our iPods, our multiple bathrooms, and the second story of our very modest house.

(I should stop here to interject that we live in a nice, but unremarkable, neighborhood in a medium-sized town in Wisconsin. That the school where I work, where my youngest attends, is a “good” school. But its poverty rate has definitely been on the rise the last few years. The point being…poorness isn’t an inner-city, urban problem. If your kids go to public school, these are most likely their classmates, too.)

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

The show ended; my guys went to bed. And I opened up my laptop to write. But I couldn’t get started. Writing about a talking rat? How ridiculous. Telling a story about a secret society of classroom pets? How frivolous. How was that helping anyone in the world? Why wasn’t I using my writing to make the world a better place? To right injustices? Of what value could my little rat book hold for kids facing such hard stuff? Maybe I was wasting my time.

But I don’t think so.

Because as I considered, I realized that even though my book’s not about Great Things and Deep Serious Topics, it does still matter. And maybe even especially for kids facing hard stuff. Because…

I write mysteries starring classroom pets at midnight to give kids a break from their problems. From their moms and dads arguing in the next room, from the hunger pains, from the teasing, from the worry. I write to get them to think about other things. To wonder. To dream about “what if.” What if the animal you sit next to every day in class knows more than you realize? (What if you do, too?)

I write animal fantasies because maybe kids will find a friend in my story just when they need one the most. When they’re lonely or bored or sad, maybe they’ll open my book and find a glasses-wearing elderly iguana or a hyper hamster or two who speaks to them, like a friend.

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

I write—funny stories about a rat so small he is mistaken for a mouse—so that kids can see themselves. So they can know that even if someone has labeled them—poor, lazy, slow, fat—it doesn’t mean that’s who they are…or who they have to be.

I write so that kids will read. And if it takes a silly talking rat with a weakness for peanut butter who occasionally get flushed down the toilet, then so be it. Because the more kids read, the better readers they become. And the better readers they become, the more choices they have in their futures.

And I want them to have choices in their futures.

So, if you, like many of us, spent last week eating too much and gorging on Black Friday sales, you may want to take a moment. Watch the Frontline special. Go visit your local public school. Seek out a kid. And think about it. About what you have. About what you just bought so easily for your family.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to preach and say you need to go do something about it. That’s up to you.

As for my family? Well, along with a few other things, we hauled two bags of our favorite kids’ books down to the local homeless shelter.

Because they matter. The kids…and the books.


W.H. Beck is an elementary school librarian by day and a children’s author by night (well, actually, very early mornings). Her first novel, a humorous middle grade mystery called Malcolm at Midnight, does indeed star a loveable rat and a secret society of classroom pets. You can find out more about it and her at http://www.whbeck.com or @whbeck on Twitter. 



Malcolm at Midnight trailer: