Friday, October 21, 2011

Rome, Math, Fashion and Death

Thompson, Kate. Most Wanted.
Nominated for the Cybils by Anamaria Anderson.

Marcus was out making his bread deliveries when he is handed a horse by a slave-- and not just any horse, but the purple bedecked "consul", Incitatus. Rumor has it that the emperor Little Boots (Caligula) is dead, and Marcus fears for the safety of the horse. He takes the horse home to his family's home and bakery and starts to think that he may also have endangered his family. His grandfather was killed by Little Boots, whose madness is portrayed in a number of scenes. The family decides that the right thing to do is to take the horse to the new emperor, Claudius, and hope for the best.
Strengths: So many. This is a short book with large type, but the details about every day life in Rome are vividly portrayed. This book makes the weirdness of Caligula's reign seem understandable, which makes it perfect for our seventh grade curriculum. Jonny Duddle's illustrations are reminiscent of Robert Lawson (think Ferdinand) and really add a lot to the story. Considering that this is a 5.7 Accelerated Reader level and just 2 points long, I may be buying two copies of this.
Weaknesses: Why were Duddle's illustrations not used on the cover? They had a You Wouldn't Want to Be book quality that would have appealed to reluctant readers.

Mills, Claudia. Fractions= Trouble!
Nominated for the Cybils by Susan Dobinick

Wilson is embarassed that he has to go to a tutor for help with his math, although he finds the tutor to be very helpful and also more enjoyable than he planned. His weakness is fractions, and he would rather spend his time drawing pictures of his hamsters, so his tutor works that into the lessons. Wilson is also hard at wotk at the third grade science fair, using the hamster in an experiment about how well hamsters can smell. His friend Josh is also working on a project-- trying to see under what conditions pickles will explode! Wilson is worried that Josh won't like him if he finds out about the tutoring, but in the end the two boys learn that everyone has trouble with some things.
Strengths: Nicely written, engaging book for younger students. A nice balance was struck with the tutoring, and it is a funny enough book that many students would pick it up in elementary school. Nice use of hamsters, something third graders ADORE!
Weaknesses: A little predictable.

Axelrod, Amy. Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro.
Nominated for the Cybils by Kathleen Morandini

In Massachusetts in 1959, Abby has a complicated life. She lives with her extended family, who own an upscale shoe store. Abby has two desires in life-- to own a bra and a Barbie doll. She loves to design fashions, and is particularly interested in the wife of an up-and-coming senator Jacqueline Kennedy, to whom she writes letters about fashion as well as the difficult things in her life. Abby tries to sell her designs in order to earn money to buy a Barbie. When her father moves out, Abby relies on the support of her family, expecially her aunt. To complicate matters, a girl whom Abby envies ends up having a father who embezzles money, her uncle dates a woman, and neighbors her aunt has hated (thinking "their people" killed her father during the war), turn out to have helped keep children safe during the Holocaust. One of them also finds and mails all of Abby's letters to Mrs. Kennedy, who kindly responds.
Strengths: Clearly, Axlerod lived through this period; the illustrations are ones she did when a child in 1959. The dynamics of the family are interesting, and the events in the world at large are described in a way that younger readers will understand.
Weaknesses: This read a bit like Adriana Trigiani's books. Great stuff, but heavy on details students might not appreciate. Readers today also might not understand the appeal of Barbie to a girl old enough to wear a bra. The father's role in this book could have been eliminated.

Murphy, Sally. Pearl Verses the World.
Nominated for the Cybils by Lisa Schroeder

Pearl loves to write, but she doesn't like to write poetry for her teacher because her teacher wants them to rhyme and have meter. Pearl's grandmother has told her that poems sometimes just are. Pearl's grandmother, however, is in the final stages of her fight with Alzheimers, and Pearl misses her dreadfully and is worried about the toll caring for her is taking on her mother. Eventually, the worst happens and Pearl and her mother must say goodbye to the grandmother and move on with their lives.
Strengths: For a novel in verse, this is better done than many. The illustrations are just right. The whole book put me in mind of Estes' 100 Dresses somehow.
Weaknesses: Overwhelmingly sad. This is for slightly younger readers, and I don't know that I would want to hand it to someone whose grandmother was dying. This also gets points off for the portrayal of the librarian: "We have many books, says Mrs. Rose, the librarian, and ALL of them are good. Of course she says that. It's her job." (page 16) Pearl doesn't see any books she likes, since she wants to read about someone in a situation similar to hers, so she leaves the library "empty-handed empty-headed empty-hearted". (page 17) Pearl looks so utterly dejected in the accompanying illustration that one would hope the librarian would have taken her aside and asked what was wrong.

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