MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Absolute Value of Mike (2011)
Kathryn Erskine
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Mike is a fourteen-year-old with dyscalculia, but his father is a professional mathematician and is quite insistent that he should learn math and go to Newton High, the math magnet school. According to his father:

(quoted from The Absolute Value of Mike)

If you can't solve the simplest math problems, you'll end up on the street.

And so, when work requires his father to spend time in Romania, he sends Mike to work on an engineering project with his octogenarian aunt and uncle so that he can learn a bit of math.

As the math pun in the title implies, the main point of the book is that Mike has value despite his mathematical inabilities. It turns out that there is no engineering project...that was just a matter of miscommunication between the aunt and his father. Instead, Mike spearheads an an international adoption effort, a project that involves lots of fund raising and community organizing. Thus, we learn that Mike may not be good at the sort of engineering which involves math, but he is skilled at social engineering. The "feel good ending" gets even better than that when we realize that Mike's father cares about him more than it seemed before and that his insistence on Mike developing his mathematical skills was at least partly his clumsy attempt to develop a personal connection with his son.

All of that is fine and well, and it may indeed be a lesson that some young adults (the book's target audience) need to hear, even if it is a bit twee for my tastes.

In a sense, this book is not really about mathematics but about what is possible without mathematics. However, in attempting to show us that Mike is valuable despite his lack of mathematical abilities, it does say something about math. I mean, by trying to show us the opposite of math, it gives us some idea of what it thinks math is.

Math is represented in the book by Mike's father, and he is a man with lots of problems: He is forgetful, overweight, anti-social, and not able to manage his daily life without the help of his teenage son. Mike's father is also seemingly biased against everything other than math and engineering. Finally, the father is an extremely serious work-a-holic with no sense of humor or appreciation of fun and games.

I can see that this fits well into this story Erskine wishes to tell. However, as the father is essentially the only mathematician we get to know in the book (aside from brief exchanges of text messages between Mike and one of his father's students, who is presumably training to be an engineer), a young reader with no personal experience could certainly get the impression that this is what all mathematicians are like.

I fear that a young adult who read this book and heard that I am a professional mathematician would develop all sorts of negative assumptions about my value based on this portrayal. As I said, the book seems to set up a spectrum with math at one end and the fun, caring, social world Mike experiences with his older relatives at the other, as if these things were incompatible with math. Would it not be possible to write a novel about the inherent value of people with dyscalculia that is not so insulting to people who do math professionally? I do not deny that there could be a real person like the character of Mike's father, but contrary to the stereotype found so often in fiction, the vast majority of mathematicians I know are much more capable, much more loving, much more fun, and much more social than this character. It is certainly true that one can be a talented and valuable person without mathematics, but you do not have to forfeit your humanity to be a professional mathematician either.

As one might expect from the fact that the main character has a math disability, there really is not much math in the book. Aside from the character of his father the primary mathematical aspect of the book are the chapter titles. For example, the first chapter is entitled "Parallel Lines - lines in the same plane that do not intersect" and every chapter similarly begins with a mathematical term followed by a definition. Presumably, these are meant to resonate with the story (with Mike and his father being like parallel lines, for example). However, as a mathematician, I could not help but be bothered by the descriptions that were often either a little wrong or very wrong. ("Unfavorable Outcomes" are not "the odds that an event will not succeed" and an "Interval" is not "the distance between two points".) Of course, the poor definitions do not alter the validity or importance of the book's main idea, the value of people with learning disabilities, but it could have been better (in my opinion, of course) if the author just either knew or cared a bit more about the way math and mathematicians are portrayed.

I am grateful to school librarian Rachel Green for writing to suggest that I add this book to my list of mathematical fiction.

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Absolute Value of Mike
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Annika Riz, Math Whiz (Franklin School Friends) by Claudia Mills
  2. Sophie Simon Solves them All by Lisa Graff
  3. Geek Abroad by Piper Banks
  4. Getting Somewhere by Jenny Pausacker
  5. She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
  6. Saraswati's Way by Monika Schroder
  7. The Cinderella Theorem by Kristee Ravan
  8. The Square Root of Murder by Paul Zindel
  9. Claudia and the Middle School Mystery (Baby-sitters Club) by Ann Martin
  10. Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us) by Brian Hamill
Ratings for The Absolute Value of Mike:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
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Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
GenreChildren's Literature,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Math Education,
Topic
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)