January 27, 2011


The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. By Ben H. Winters. Harper. $16.99.

My Weird School Daze #11: Mr. Tony Is Full of Baloney! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $3.99.

     What exactly are teachers when they are not, you know, teaching? This is a recurring question for their students, and a recurring topic for books, movies and comic strips. There must be something more to teachers than all those boring lessons and homework that represent the usual interface between them and their students, right? Both Ben H. Winters and Dan Gutman have fun with this perennial question, although in different ways and with the intention of reaching readers of different ages. Winters’ The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, for ages 8-12, is about a teacher so determinedly ordinary that she is practically invisible. Ms. Finkleman is not a really bad music teacher, but neither is she really good; she dresses conservatively, but not to a great enough degree to draw attention to herself. Clearly there must be a mystery here – clearly, that is, to Bethesda Fielding, who just happens to have a social-studies assignment to solve a mystery in her own life. Bethesda focuses on Ms. Finkleman, and soon learns that the ordinary teacher has a tattoo that appears to be of Ozzy Osbourne. Aha! A connection with rock music! And Bethesda’s father, conveniently (rather too conveniently for believability), happens once to have fronted an indie rock band. So with his help and the discovery of a paper from Ms. Finkleman’s desk, they establish the teacher’s connection to an all-girl punk-rock band called Little Miss Mystery and the Red Herrings. So naturally Bethesda reveals the teacher’s secret rock-music life, and naturally the principal decides it would be a good thing to stage a battle-of-the-bands event right at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School, and naturally – well, nothing here is really natural, and elements of the story are so forced that it often reads more like a fairy tale than a middle-school romp. So of course there needs to be a secret beyond the secret, a mystery behind the mystery: what has been revealed about Ms. Finkleman turns out not to be correct, not quite, and even that revelatory tattoo, although it exists, proves not to be what it seems. The school, of course, rallies anyway, and there is lots of good rockin’, but Winters is a little too determined to make rock some sort of “wonder music” and to denigrate other types, especially classical. And the twists in Ms. Finkleman’s story are really rather overdone. Still, rock-music fans in the target age range will find that The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman plays neatly to their tastes.

     The target readership is younger in Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze series, which is intended for ages 7-10, but the underlying theme of teachers who are not mere disseminators of facts is the same. Gutman’s series is played entirely for laughs, and Mr. Tony Is Full of Baloney! fits right in. Mr. Tony runs “After-School Kids’ Kare” (ASKK), which A.J. is going to because his mom just got a job. And Mr. Tony has an ambition: to make the world’s largest pizza. Well, actually he is really obsessed with getting into The Guinness Book of World Records, to the point of doing such things as juggling while on a pogo stick and jogging while holding a spoon with an egg on it in his mouth. But it is the pizza obsession that captures him after the kids of ASKK suggest it, and of course the whole project gets more and more complex, eventually involves the school principal parachuting from a plane while wearing an ape suit, and is so utterly silly that kids with as little as an ounce of maturity will likely find the whole story ridiculous. Gutman’s book – and the amusing Jim Paillot illustrations throughout it – are for all the kids whose maturity levels fall short of that ounce. And maybe for their parents, too.

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