For Kathryn Erskine, art imitates life—deliberately. “I love reading and learning things from fiction,” she says, “and I figured others would, too.”
They certainly do: Her third novel, the 2010 National Book Award winner Mockingbird, features a fifth grader named Caitlin, who was inspired by Erskine’s daughter; both have Asperger’s syndrome.
In Erskine’s engaging new novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, the main character has a math-related learning disability that creates friction with his engineering-obsessed father. Once again, Erskine drew on the experiences of a family member—her son, who has a learning disability. The author says she’s learned a lot from him and wanted to incorporate those lessons in The Absolute Value of Mike. “I was a kid who got straight A’s, and thought that’s what you should do, that it meant you were smart,” she says by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. “My son does fine, but he’s not a straight-A kind of kid, and I realized he has all these life skills—he understands people, and he’s a problem-solver. I’ve learned great grades don’t guarantee success.”
The author wants kids to understand that, too. “I see children with learning disabilities or other issues who are down on themselves,” Erskine says. “I’d like them to take the message away that we all have something to contribute, and we need to follow whatever our passion is.”
Young readers will empathize with Mike’s frustration at his father’s insistence that math would be easier if he only tried harder—and they’ll share his trepidation when he’s sent to stay with relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer and work on an engineering project.
Mike becomes impatient with the project, but he is intrigued when he learns of a town-wide effort to raise money to adopt a little boy from Romania. Readers will be moved as Mike becomes part of something bigger than himself—and gains self-confidence in the process.
While a young Erskine wouldn’t have been daunted by a Pennsylvania trip (she lived in several countries as a child, thanks to her parents’ foreign-service jobs), she does know about international adoption—both her children are from Russia. “[Adoption] is something I thought others might not know that much about, but they’d be interested.”
Right now, Erskine is herself interested in a few different projects: an adult novel “for a change of pace”; a picture book “as an exercise to force myself to use very few words to get my point across”; and historical fiction for middle-grade readers.
“I don’t even want to use the h-word, because it turns kids off sometimes, but history is like a fantasy world—except it really happened!” Readers won’t need convincing. Thanks to books like Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike, it’s clear that, if anyone can make learning an enjoyable experience, Erskine can.Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
Sent to stay with octogenarian relatives for the summer, 14-year-old Mike ends up coordinating a community drive to raise $40,000 for the adoption of a Romanian orphan. He'll never be his dad's kind of engineer, but he learns he's great at human engineering.
Mike's math learning disability is matched by his widower father's lack of social competence; the Giant Genius can't even reliably remember his son's name. Like many of the folks the boy comes to know in Do Over, Penn.—his great-uncle Poppy silent in his chair, the multiply pierced-and-tattooed Gladys from the bank and "a homeless guy" who calls himself Past—Mike feels like a failure. But in spite of his own lack of confidence, he provides the kick start they need to cope with their losses and contribute to the campaign. Using the Internet (especially YouTube), Mike makes use of town talents and his own webpage design skills and entrepreneurial imagination. Math-definition chapter headings (Compatible Numbers, Zero Property, Tessellations) turn out to apply well to human actions in this well-paced, first-person narrative. Erskine described Asperger's syndrome from the inside in Mockingbird (2010). Here, it's a likely cause for the rift between father and son touchingly mended at the novel's cinematic conclusion.
A satisfying story of family, friendship and small-town cooperation in a 21st-century world. (Fiction. 10-14)Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Following her National Book Award win for Mockingbird, Erskine tries her hand at comedy with this story of an undervalued boy learning his considerable worth. Mike's father, a math professor, must teach in Romania for six weeks, so he ships his motherless 14-year-old to live with distant relatives and work on an engineering project to improve Mike's chances of getting into a math magnet school. Mike's dyscalculia, a math disability, telegraphs immediately that this plan won't succeed, but things go wrong in surprising ways. The relatives, Moo and Poppy, are octogenarians grieving the death of their adult son. Moo, a comical but endearing figure, frequently confuses words--the "artesian screw" Mike was supposed to work on is really an "artisan's crew" of woodworkers, building boxes to raise funds to bring a Romanian orphan to live with a widowed minister in town. There are many contrivances: nearly every important character is grieving someone, and Misha, the prospective adoptee, looks exactly like Mike and is wearing a shirt Mike donated to charity. Still, the wacky cast, rewarding character growth, and ample humor make this an effortless read. Ages 10-up. (June)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC
Gr 6-9--Mike's father, a brilliant engineering professor, is disappointed that he does not have a brilliant, mathematically inclined son and is forcing him to spend the summer working on remedial math and engineering projects to get him ready for high school. When he is offered a university teaching job in Romania, Mike ends up staying with his great-aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. Moo can barely see, and Poppy is catatonic since the death of their son. Mike becomes involved in a project to help Karen, a local teacher, adopt a child from Romania. However, the country's adoption laws have changed, and now she has just three weeks to scrape together $40,000 for adoption fees, so Mike and the rest of the town work together to help her. Before he realizes it, he is in charge of the whole operation. It's a huge undertaking for a 14-year-old as it involves a web campaign, eBay marketing, and a town festival. Now if only he can get Poppy out of his armchair and working on the artisan boxes he promised to sell before his son's death, they might just make their deadline. The eccentric characters' over-the-top behaviors border on the ridiculous, and kids will be laughing throughout much of the novel. Unfortunately, the story ends before enough money is raised. While parts of the novel are heartwarming, the ending is likely to leave readers frustrated.--Melyssa Kenney, Parkville High School, Baltimore, MD[Page 97]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.