Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney, Emily Boever

Rating: WARTY!

This is volume two in a series of at least three, and the book very kindly indicates this on the front cover, which is nice. I have not read the third volumes, but I did read the first, and I rated it positively back in June of 2015 with the caveat that I'd prefer it if these books improved! Obviously they have not, so I am now going back to de-rate that one as part of an overall series rating. These books can be read as standalones, and the essence of the series is a commendable one in that it revolves around four middle-grade students who help the police to solve crimes using mathematics. This is great, but the spirit behind the book turned out to be rather more noble than the execution of the novel itself.

I am all on-board for a series that teaches the subjects which too many students in the US fall down on: math and the sciences, but this novel disappointed me in that it offered a lot more than it actually delivered. There was very little math, and what there was of that was a bit limp and vague. The story revolved around acts of petty vandalism being conducted by "Mr Jekyll" a name which was a clue in itself. This was fine, but the attempt to bring math into this by employing a mathematical technique known as the Line of Best Fit, and the Least Squares Method to track the vandal's movements wasn't employed very well and wasn't explained in very much detail. That was all the math we got!

I felt like I was reading a very dumbed-down novelization of the TV show NUMB3RS which ran on CBS from 2005 to 2010. This was aimed at an adult audience and starred Rob Morrow as an FBI agent and David Krumholz as his mathematically-gifted younger brother who helped him solve crimes. It was a good show, and reading this made me want to go back and watch that series over again because it did a far better job of teaching math and incorporating it into the plot! The novel felt further dumbed-down in that the kids names - which admittedly the authors were stuck with after volume one - are as improbably as the plot: Felix, Gertie, and Stanley? Honestly? The fourth kid had a much more regular name: Charlotte. Names are important to me in my own novels, and if these kids were named that way to serve some purpose, then I could understand it, but they're apparently not so-named for any particular purpose.

In this novel, we had some unknown and obviously disaffected kid who was spray-painting "Mr Jekyll" on various things, including, in one case, a pet dog, which was drugged and shaved first. eventually the kids figure it out of course, but there was far too much melodrama leading up to it and a complete lack of justice at the end. Worse than this, there was bullying conducted by the kids themselves, and a really poor attitude towards the police, mainly in the form of a dumb and vindictive police chief who was dedicatedly seeking to jail the math inspector kids, and who, let's face it, indulged in bullying himself. This attitude has not improved an iota from volume one, and the authors should be ashamed of themselves for it.

I know it's fun and important to dramatize stories like these to make them engaging for readers, but there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do it, and this was the latter. I know also that the kids have to be given center stage and that story lines do end-up being improbable to one extent to another, but this particular one, for me was way overdone and done foolishly. Unless the story completely hinges on a police officer being stupid or brutal, which this story did not, I think it's mistake to depict the police in such a poor light to young children. Yes, the police do have their issues, but those issues aren't going to be resolved by showing the police as plodding, bullying brutes instead of as humans.

Unlike in the first volume, the illustrations in this one did example the math a bit, but I think there could have been more. There was no improvement in the depiction of the two girls in the group. They took a back seat to Stanley the math whiz, who pretty much dominated that portion of the story. I'm actually surprised the girls weren't depicted in Barbie Outfits saying, "Gee, math is hard!" But this wasn't even the worst part of it. In addition to showing the painting of a dog, the authors. had the math inspector kids encouraging the vandal, who got away with it in the end, bullying and humiliating one of the girls in the school by dumping a can of blue paint over her - real, oil-based paint. This was the final straw for me because it was entirely disproportionate to what she had done to them (which was merely making snide remarks and trying to get them into trouble with the police), and even if it had been proportionate, it still wouldn't have been right.

Showing the police leaping to inane conclusions with no evidence was stupid and irresponsible. Having the entire school board meet to vote in public on whether these four kids - who had been charged with nothing - expelled for something they didn't even do in school or on school time, was simply ridiculous. The authors had the school board conduct an anonymous ballot and then had each member of the board read out how they voted! What?! Do the authors simply not get what 'anonymous' means, or did they think they were being cute or ironic? It came off as moronic to me. Teaching middle-grade kids that adults conduct kangaroos courts based on knee-jerk assumptions, zero solid evidence and no trial is dumb. Yes, there are far too many adults like that, but these were not random adults, they were the police and the school! It's not acceptable.

One of the big issues in the story was the school bully, who was shown as getting away with it and being completely unchecked by the teaching staff or the school bus driver; then we're shown the four math bullies encouraging the vandal to douse another student in paint. I'm sorry but this is totally unacceptable. If the girl had accidentally douse herself because of her behavior, that's one thing, but encourage vandalism and violence like this as though it's a good thing, or is supposedly some form of justice is inexcusable in a middle grade book. That's why I'm rating this as a complete fail, and why I'm going back to down-rate the contingent rating I gave the first volume now that the authors have shown me that they have no intention of improving this series.

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