Everything about "Malcolm at Midnight" by W.H. Beck (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, ages 9-12) cries out for a place on the list of books read aloud in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.
The story itself is set in motion by a teacher reading aloud. Mr. Binney announces that he has chosen "The Tale of Despereaux" (Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Award-winning novel about a heroic mouse) in honor of Malcolm, the fifth grade's new classroom pet. Mr. Binney little suspects that the novel throws poor Malcolm into an identity crisis. Malcolm is not a mouse, but a rat, though small enough to pass for the more acceptable rodent, and he's horrified to learn the reputation of his kind: "Was that what people really thought of rats? That they are sneaky, conniving, lazy, greedy?"
Mr. Binney advises his students, when faced with choices, to consider "the person they want to be," and "Malcolm at Midnight" is all about doing the right thing. That night Malcolm, discovering his cage door open, sets out to explore the school and finds himself -- still mistakenly identified as a mouse -- inducted into the Midnight Academy, the secret society of classroom pets who act as guardians of the school. A mystery ensues that involves a power struggle within the academy and the many ambiguities of the human-pet bond. In the end, Malcolm finds an honorable way to embody an academy saying: "A critter reveals his true self at midnight. It means the way you are when no one is looking."
A crisis of identity lies also at the heart of Louise Erdrich's novel for the same age group, "Chickadee" (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 8-12). Chickadee, an 8-year-old Ojibwe boy living by the Great Lakes in the mid-19th century, has started to resent the guardian animal he was named for. He has always loved the story of a small bird's appearance at his birth in winter, but what kind of warrior can he become with a name like Chickadee? His twin brother is named for a bear.
"Chickadee" is the fourth novel in Erdrich's Birchbark House series, which is tracing the history of one Native American family. The twins are the sons of Omakayas, who was a little girl in the first book. The pleasures of reading the series are not unlike those of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder: Discovering an earlier time in our country through stories of the daily lives of children. "Chickadee" opens with the community collecting maple sap to be boiled down to sugar, an activity that also appears in "Little House in the Big Woods."
Erdrich's stories contain more adventure. Chickadee's kidnapping forces his family on a journey to recover him. Along the way, Chickadee discovers what his grandmother assured him, that "small things have great power."
"Andrew Henry's Meadow" by Doris Burn (Philomel, $14.99, ages 4-8) offers a perfect parable of the child's thirst for freedom. Andrew Henry likes to build things, but his projects are inconvenient to the rest of his family. So he heads to a meadow out in the woods and builds his own house. Soon he is joined by Alice, whose father doesn't care for birds; Andrew builds her a tree house, complete with a bird feeder and a place to rest her binoculars. Andrew and Alice are joined by others, until there's quite a community of emancipated children in the meadow. A reissue of a 1967 picture book, "Andrew Henry's Meadow" has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel, with a leisurely pace and cozy black-and-while illustrations (which illustrator Marla Frazee surely studied), but the message is timeless: Kids know what they need, and they'll find it, if only adults will give them a little breathing room.
The Goldilocks of Mo Willems' new book, "Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs" (Balzer + Bray, $17.99, ages 3-7) could be Trixie from the author's beloved "Knuffle Bunny" books -- a little girl worthy of protection, to be sure, but ultimately "no fool."
Although the fractured fairy tale has become a cliche in children's books, Willems puts his incomparable stamp on the genre with a dinosaur-bear switcheroo. "What is going on around here?" the frustrated heroine groans when things aren't going as she expects. "The bears that live here must be nuts!" While she is frolicking her way as a character through the tale, she also gives voice to the reader's thorough familiarity with the details of the three bears' story.