Book Review: The Absolute Value of Mike
The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine. 2011.
Mike’s dad is a brilliant mathematician, but he has trouble doing the ordinary things—like making meals, paying bills, and finding his car keys. Mike is fourteen and has been taking care of these real life issues, and like most boys, he really wants to please his dad. His dad expects Mike to be just like him and wants him to attend a math magnet school.
But Mike is not like his dad, and he knows he will be a failure there. Mike has dyscalculia—like dyslexia but with numbers.
As the story begins, Mike finds out that his father will be attending a six-week seminar in Romania, and Mike will have to spend that time with some unknown, elderly relatives in rural Pennsylvania. His dad’s uncle is starting an engineering project—building an artesian screw—which should be an excellent experience for Mike. If he really buckles down, Mike figures he might be able to make his father proud.
But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. His dad’s aunt and uncle live in a small town full of quirky characters—not the least of which are his own relatives! Poppy is paralyzed with grief over losing his adult son; Poppy’s absentminded wife, Moo, fancies herself a collector of lost souls. There’s also a punk rock girl looking for a normal family and a homeless gentleman who is not at all what he seems.
And the artesian screw project has nothing at all to do with engineering. In reality, Poppy is supposed to be leading an artisan’s crew to make beautiful wooden boxes, boxes that will be sold to earn $40,000 to help the town’s doctor adopt a little boy from overseas.
If Mike thought he knew nothing about engineering, he is sure he knows nothing about building beautiful boxes or coaxing his grief-stricken uncle to get started on this project. But Mike does have talents that he is not even aware of, and the project may not be as doomed as he fears.
The combination of literature and math in this book works very well. Each chapter begins with a mathematical term and its definition—a term that is also defined through the relationships and events in that chapter. For example, the first chapter is “Parallel Lines—lines in the same plane that do not intersect.” Though Mike and his father live together and care about each other, their interests and plans and personalities just “do not intersect.”
It takes the entire book for Mike to find out what his “absolute value” is. And for those of you who, like me, have to look up what absolute value is because it’s been so long since our last math class, I’ll explain. Absolute value is the distance a number is from zero. Mike had always thought of his father as being on the positive side of the number line—and since Mike was so different, then he must be on the negative side, the bad side, the “something’s wrong with me” side.
But absolute value is always positive. Whether you are at +6 or at -6 on the number line, you are 6 spaces from zero, so your absolute value is 6.
And by the conclusion of the book, both Mike and his father will be able to see what Mike’s talents are, what his absolute value is—and that it is very positive indeed.