Grades 3-5: Malcolm at Midnight by W. H. Beck

Grades 6-8: Buddy by M.H. Herlong

Past Winners

Stories that feature animals again take center stage in the books selected by Kansas schoolchildren as the winners of the 2015 William Allen White Children’s Book Awards.

“Malcolm at Midnight,” by W.H. Beck was selected by voters in Grades 3 through 5.

"Buddy," by M.H. Herlong, was selected by voters in Grades 6 through 8.

Malcolm, the title character in Beck’s book, is a class rat — the four-legged kind with a tail. He’s a pet at McKenna School, and he revels in the attention. Other classroom pets are part of the Midnight Academy, a secret society that works to keep the nutters (schoolchildren) safe. When the Academy’s iguana leader is kidnapped, Malcolm is a prime suspect because rats have a horrible reputation.

“Malcolm came to me as I was researching animals for a nonfiction series I was working on,” said Beck. “I read all these incredible facts about rats — they can fall from tremendous heights and be fine, they can squeeze through spaces the size of a quarter, they can gnaw through cement and lead and glass — and it struck me that rats really were quite amazing. But they have such a bad reputation! I liked that contrast.”

The contrast led to “Malcolm at Midnight.”

“I started imagining this rat, a rat who was a good guy, a hero, really, who was wrestling with all the stereotypes and expectations that people (and, as it turns out, other critters) had of him. And who ultimately would need all his ratty ‘superpowers’ of sorts to save everyone,” she said.

The idea struck a chord for Beck, who is an elementary school librarian by day.

“As a teacher and a librarian this really connected with me,” Beck said. “It reminded me of the kids I work with every day who are figuring out what kind of people they want to be, often while struggling against assumptions other people have of them.”

Describing herself as an author “in the mornings, late at nights and in between kids’ sports practices,” Beck and her husband, also a librarian, live in Wisconsin with two sons and a dog. “Malcolm at Midnight” is Beck’s debut novel.

In Herlong’s “Buddy,” the relationship between Tyrone “Li’l T” Roberts and his dog, Buddy, is the backdrop to a larger story of surviving Hurricane Katrina and rebuilding. Li’l T finds Buddy when his family accidentally hits the stray dog while driving to church. The family adopts Buddy, but when Hurricane Katrina hits their city of New Orleans, the family flees,  Li’l T has to leave Buddy behind, and Buddy goes missing. When they return to their devastated home and city, Li’l T refuses to give up on his quest to find his best friend.

Herlong is a teacher, writer, former lawyer, parent of four sons, and the author of “The Great Wide Sea,” a YALSA 2010 Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. The author has lived for 27 years in New Orleans, Louisiana, where levee breaks in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina caused massive flooding, destroyed much of the city and inspired her to write “Buddy,” her second book.

“We packed two days worth of stuff,” Herlong recalled about the Katrina evacuation. “I told my sons, ‘Yes, you have to bring your homework.’”

Evacuation wasn’t unusual for the family, and two days was the length of time they would normally be gone before being allowed to return. Katrina, however, left the family displaced for over two months.

“Many many people left pets behind,” Herlong said. “The reasons were based on history — Our experience was that we would be gone two days but just to get out of the city, we would be in the car 14 hours, which is torture on animals.”

The William Allen White Children’s Book Award program began after the famed journalist’s death on Jan. 29, 1944 — Kansas Day — when two memorial foundations were created in his name. Emporia State University launched the William Allen White Children’s Book Award, which was guided by Ruth Garver Gagliardo, who was hired by White to write for The Emporia Gazette.

Passionate about books, Gagliardo wrote a regular column that commented on books, music and art, and often concentrated on books for children. She was one of the first to review children’s books for a newspaper, which gave parents, teachers and librarians the chance to know about good quality books for children.

Gagliardo’s column led to “The Children’s Bookshelf,” a book review column in the Kansas Teacher magazine. She also started the Children’s Traveling Book Exhibit, which helped introduce children all over Kansas to good books for 23 years.

The 63rd annual celebration of the WAW Children’s Book Awards, supported in part by the Trusler Foundation, will be Oct. 3, 2015. During that day, schoolchildren from across the state of Kansas travel to Emporia for special events including lock-ins, author readings and book signings along with a parade through campus to the awards ceremony itself. Many teachers use travel to the book awards as incentives in their school reading programs.

Student representatives present the winning authors with their White Award medals during the awards ceremony that concludes the special day.