Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney and Emily Boever

Rating: WARTY!

This is a really short (~127 pages) novel aimed at middle graders. It's book one of a series, and although I originally rated it a conditional 'worthy' the rating was a vote for improvements in future episodes. I had two issues with it which I hoped would be resolved in future episodes in this series. They were not, hence the downgrade. The first problem was with how this novel viewed the police.

I'm writing this review on the same morning that the Dallas police escaped a massacre when a severely disturbed and unfortunately also very violent person launched what appears to have been a one-man assault on a police precinct using bombs and automatic weapons - and this wasn't even a terrorist attack as such. It was just a pissed-off guy who didn't take kindly to police interfering in his cozy little abusive relationship.

Police are human, and as such they can be clueless and idiotic and even violent, but they are all we have between us and a wild west existence where might makes right. I certainly don't want my kids living there, although all too many kids do suffer such an existence. I didn't think this novel took the right tack in portraying these police as being incompetent, arrogant, and downright knee-jerk stupid. Cops are a heck of a lot smarter than that when it comes to seeing through the foggy veil of criminal theft and violence.

The other issue I had was with the portrayal of one of the female characters. One minor problem with this story is that we don't get much information about the four main characters, young children who are really good at solving problems, using math. We didn't get an info dump at the start, for which I was grateful, but we didn't get much info doled out as the story progressed either, which I think was a mistake. Maybe the middle graders won't worry about that. One character we did learn about was Gertie. I can't imagine anyone calling their kid Gertrude these days (or Stanley, or Felix for that matter. Charlotte I can see), but my problem wasn't actually with her name, it was with the fact that she's chubby and evidently sensitive to it.

The problem is that we don't know if this is merely "baby-fat" in which case it's of no concern as long as the kid is otherwise healthy, and eating wisely and exercising judiciously, or if it's really a health problem. It would have been nice to know more, but without better information, I have to say that I was sorry to see this represented as an issue in a world where women are already pressured (and yes from that age and younger) to conform to a certain male ideal as represented on fashion runways, and in movies and TV shows - as well as in an ungodly amount of fiction.

In the US, a nation which accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, 30% of people are overweight or obese, and this is going to get worse. This five percent of the population represents thirteen percent of overweight people world-wide. America is living large and that isn't a compliment - it's a tragedy which is not only waiting to happen, it's already happening. This doesn't help those women who have a perfectly fine weight and shape (ie they are neither stick insects nor Goliath beetles) to have this added pressure of feeling like they're part of the problem. This isn't just an adult problem either, it's a children problem too, and it starts at a disturbingly young age. Most people are not overweight, and that includes most women. It doesn't make things better if young children are given to understand that they're overweight when they're really not, so I wish this novel had been clearer, or had not mentioned this issue at all if it's not going to be relevant to the story.

Okay, after that rant, let's get to the story! The four afore-mentioned, Charlotte, Felix, Gertie, and Stanley are sixth-grade friends who love math and like to solve problems. It's commendable that there are books like this showing kids doing math in the real world and getting useful, meaningful results. Frankly, I never cared how many apples Johnny had or how many friends he had to share them equally between. It never happens! But to show Stanley work out that the prime suspect could not have driven his car to the point where police picked him up if he had committed the crime as first indicated, was wonderful! I would have liked to have seen more math - and seen illustrations showing how the math problems are worked rather than the handful of illustrations showing scenes from the story, which were neither very good nor particularly helpful.

I would also have liked to have seen the work-load distributed more evenly over the group, so each of them did some math, rather than have Stanley steamer the math whiz do everything while the others, including the two girls (including the "chubby" one), serve very little purpose other than be his minions. It seems that Gertie's only distinguishing feature is that she has a good memory. I felt that this demeaned her and I would have liked to see a more equitable distribution of talent, work, and drudgery, all of which is needed, and all of which merits praise.

I liked the way that clues were dropped here and there, and that there were some red herrings and wrong turns, but like I said, I was hoping that this series improved as it went on, and instead it has deteriorated. My review of volume two was in January 2017

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