Duble, Kathleen Benner. Madame Tussaud's Apprentice: An Untold Story of Love in the French Revolution
August 1st 2014
by Merit Press
Celie has been orphaned after her father was killed by the Comte and her mother and brother starved. She is a very good artist, but is surviving on the streets of Paris thanks to Algernon, on whom she has a rather major crush. He is very much against the aristocracy and wants to work toward their downfall, since they caused the death of his love, Julia. When Celie is caught stealing, she is saved by Madame Tussaud, who wants Celie to help her work by creating drawings of backgrounds, which Celie can make very detailed thanks to her eidetic memory. Celie is glad to have food and shelter, and manages to get Algernon a place in the household as well. Madame works frequently with Marie Antoinette and her entourage on various projects, and takes her workers out to Versailles, where Celie learns that not all aristocrats are evil. Elizabeth in particular is very kind to everyone in the household, especially a young boy whose father dies from an illness. When the revolution starts heating up, Algernon is determined that Celie fight with him and forgo her life and work with Madame's wax works. Celie must decide whether she should embrace her new career of be true to her vow of exacting revenge for her family's deaths.
Strengths: Have to admit that I really got into this one. The pacing was very good, alternating between exciting scenes and more sedate but interesting ones, and the information about the French Revolution was presented in a way that made it interesting. I was very leery of this, since the accelerated language arts students at my school were not fond of Les Miserables when it was assigned, but this was really fascinating! I should have expected as much, since this author's Phantoms in the Snow is very popular!
Weaknesses: The romance seemed weak to me, which wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't right in the title. The cover isn't the best, but I'm not sure what I would put on the cover of this.
Lawson, Jessica. The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.
July 1st 2014
by Simon&Schuster Books for Young Readers
Becky and her family have moved to St. Petersburg, Missouri, to start over following the death of her brother Jon from an undetermined wasting disease. Her father, a judge, is very concerned with the Pritchard brothers, criminals who are terrorizing their area, but also worries that Becky is getting into all sorts of trouble. And she is. Having made a pact with her brother, she is determined to have all of the adventures that Jon can't have, and wears his clothes in order to feel close to him. She starts her new school, where she makes immediate friends with Amy Lawrence and immediate enemies with Tom Sawyer, whom she thinks is a tattle tale. Local boys have a bet to see who can steal something from the local witch, Widow Douglas, and Becky is ready to jump into the fray. There is a very cruel and frustrated teacher in her school, Mr. Dobbins, who was deemed incompetent to be the town dentist, and isn't proving to be very good at teaching either. A young riverboat captain, Sam Clemens, is hanging around town waiting for his boat to be repaired, and he gives Becky some advice on breaking into the Widow Douglas' house. She and Amy concoct a plan, but things get serious when the widow is accused of grave robbing based on circumstantial evidence. After meeting the widow, the girls are even more determined to clear her name, and Becky also hopes that her mother can overcome her grief and start to care about her daughter and her activities.
Strengths: This was a very well-crafted book, with fun lines like a house that looks like "a museum of badly crocheted doilies" (pg. 24). This is a fun spin on Twain's work, bringing new life to old characters and changing things up a bit. The mystery of the Pritchard brothers is a good one, and the inclusion of Twain as a character rounds things out nicely.
Weaknesses: While this is an excellent choice for most libraries, I have two very strong personal objections to it. The first is that we had a teacher several years ago who required an advanced class to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I have never seen students have such a miserable time with a book. My younger daughter was among them, and she had such a hatred for the book that his might be a hard sell in middle school even though it's a fun romp.
The second is the way that Jon's death is dealt with by the characters. I understand that Ms. Lawson's brother-in-law, Jon, died before she started to write this book, and certainly the death of a parent and spouse is the most devastating to deal with, but I wanted to shake Becky's mother. It is not acceptable for a parent to spend so much time grieving over a dead child that a surviving child is ignored. Becky, too, spent entirely too much time pining for her brother, and this does not seem to be historically accurate. In 1860, death of young people for various reasons would have been much more commonplace. Also, it got kind of weird when Becky was completely okay with the death of a kitten, so much so that she intended to use the body for one of her exploits and even told Amy to just pick any maggots that formed off of the body.
People die. The survivors need to come to terms with it and move on. Becky clearly was crying for help, and the fact that her mother was ignoring her is not a constructive coping mechanism middle grade students need to see in literature.