Allison's Book Bag

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Posted on: October 15, 2012

Welcome to the second week of my round-up of books about learning disabilities! I have now reached my stack of fiction for intermediate readers. First up on my list is The Absolute Value of Mike, which author Kathyrn Erskine surprised me with after I reviewed another awesome book of hers about disabilities: Mockingbird.

The Absolute Value of Mike features a fourteen-year-old boy who has dyscalculia. What exactly is dyscalculia? Although many people are familiar with the term dyslexia and know that it refers to a reading disability, I less frequently hear the term dyscalculia which means an innate difficulty in learning or understanding math. For Mike, this meant that numbers and symbols make no sense to him. He also struggles with remembering directions, even in a small town.

Diagram of an Artesian Well

Diagram of an Artesian Well (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because Mike has a math learning disability, his dad wants Mike to spend the summer with his relatives who are building an artesian screw. The project could help Mike improve his math skills. Moreover, such a project should help him get into Newton High, a math magnet school. The latter is actually his dad’s idea, who believes that “if you can’t solve the simplest problems, you’ll end up on the streets.” For Mike, his brilliant idea instead is that if he can master the “artesian screw” project, he can prove to his dad that he can take care of himself and so maybe his dad would allow him to attend a regular school.

One strength of The Absolute Value of Mike lies in Erskine’s unusual but sympathetic characters which help emphasize the point that everyone has their weaknesses. For example, there is Mike’s dad who is a mathematical genius but doesn’t know how to relate with people–including his own son. He has a habit of speaking “in isolated pockets of energy, like he’d turned into electricity himself”. Then there are Poppy and Moo, the aunt and uncle with whom Mike is going to stay with over vacation. They’re elderly, meaning they struggle with the ability to see and hear. Moreover, Poppy has kind of checked out of the world, on account of the two having lost their only son a few months ago in a car accident. Next, there are the townsfolk Mike meets when he visits his relatives: Park is homeless, Gladys rejects everyone because her parents abandoned her and now she doesn’t want to get hurt again, and the list goes on.

Another strength of The Absolute Value of Mike lies in the zany plot which Erskine has created. The “artesian screw” project is not actually an engineering project but a mispronunciation by Moo. It actually refers to “artesian crew” or the townsfolk who are helping Karen raise money to adopt an orphan from Romania. Through the unusual situations the folks all find themselves in, Erskine also emphasizes the point that we should draw on our strengths to make the world a better place. Mike’s dad might define Mike by his lack of math skill, but the townsfolk instead give Mike the opportunity to use his abilities to: develop websites, create videos, sell products, and list goes on. As for the townsfolk, Mike might define Moo by her failing vision, but everyone else sees her as the lady who rescues all the rejects. Or he might define Poppy as a vegetable, but once upon a time Poppy used to make beautiful things with his hands. And list goes on.

The Absolute Value of Mike is a zany and hilarious book everyone should read, whether or not they struggle with learning disabilities. As for those young people who struggle with dyscalculia, they might learn a few math concepts from the chapter titles. Each features a term and a definition, which is then illustrated in fictional form by the situations which happen in the chapter. But, even if they don’t learn anything about math, maybe they’ll discover they have other strengths that are just waiting to shine.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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