Malcolm Under the Stars

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Sweetness, positive messages galore in brave-rat sequel.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Loads of useful information here: irresistible bits of science (hamsters have pouches that let them really stuff their mouths), history (the investigation leads kids and critters to learn more about Depression-era events and culture), and vocabulary (the fifth-grade narrators supply footnotes about words that might be too hard for younger readers; for example, "Quandary=dilemma, problematic situation. Vocabulary from 2/22. Normally, Malcolm's biggest quandary was which to eat first: Jovahn's Pop-Tarts or Amelia's graham crackers").

Positive Messages

Strong messages of friendship, forgiveness, and the redeeming power of love. Each character's particular Knack -- however unlikely -- saves the day. Even unwelcome change doesn't have to be the end of the world.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Brave young rat Malcolm always tries to do the right thing -- which sometimes means not following conventional wisdom, as when he makes friends with critters living in the forest, despite being told that Inside and Outside animals don't mix. Many animal and human characters display courage, creative thinking, and tenacity in their efforts to save their beloved school. A long-ago incident in which a rich man forgives someone who steals from him has far-reaching effects and serves as an example to the characters. (Heads up: Some younger kids may be inspired to follow the lead of Malcolm's hamster friends in seeing how many French fries they can stuff into their mouths at once.)

Violence & Scariness

Animal characters are sometimes in peril, and there are some scary moments (many in the character's head), but no real harm befalls anyone. Some kids may be upset that Amelia has to leave the school and all her friends because her dad has lost his job.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Malcolm Under the Stars, the follow-up to Malcolm at Midnight, has all the appeal of the first book and a bit less scariness. In less skilled hands than those of author W.H. Beck and illustrator Brian Lies, the positive messages and life lessons -- including friendship, working together, the importance of each person's talents, making the best of things you can't change, and how love and kindness redeem lives -- might crush the life out of the tale. But here, between the great characters (human and critter alike, brought to life in personality-rich illustrations), their creative problem-solving skills, and a raft of sweet moments, it's all about getting your message across by telling a great story -- which just happens to be one of the lessons.

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What's the story?

After the dramatic events of Malcolm at Midnight, things seem to be settling down for the critters, nutters (kids), and lankies (adults) of McKenna School. But brave, well-meaning young Malcolm the rat is still worried: He's not convinced the crazed, murderous Snip the cat from Book 1 is really gone. Soon a bigger peril looms: The once state-of-the-art school is falling apart, and the school board wants to close it. Meanwhile, Malcolm's human BFF Amelia has been acting very strangely. As kids and critters work together to prevent disaster, they go down unexpected paths, from historical research into the school's past to an unheard-of collaboration between Inside and Outside animals as Malcolm leaves the comfort of his cage to become MALCOLM UNDER THE STARS.

Is it any good?

Malcolm and his multi-species friends return in a fun sequel with all the original's appeal and a bit less scariness. Author W.H. Beck's lively, vocabulary-drenched narrative (in the voice of Mr. Binney's fifth-graders) and Brian Lies' endearing illustrations make the characters relatable and appealing as they test boundaries and try to solve numerous mysteries, from finding the legendary treasure that might save their school to figuring out why Amelia is acting so strangely all of a sudden.

The story dishes out plenty of positive messages -- especially about the power of forgiveness and love -- but avoids getting preachy.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories that involve kids and animals working together. Why do you think they're so popular? Do they make you see the animals around you differently?

  • This story would have been very different if a certain character had chosen stern justice over kind forgiveness. Have you ever had a choice between insisting on what was rightfully yours or being generous to someone who's done you wrong? How did it turn out?

  • In Malcolm Under the Stars, sometimes it's good to follow the rules, and sometimes it's good to think for yourself. Do you think that's also true in real life? What could go wrong? Is it worth the risk?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love mysteries and animal stories

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