When I saw this book at the library, I was drawn directly to it. Why? For one thing, my post on dyscalculia and teaching math is one of my most popular posts ever. For another, I am always seeking good children’s books with mathematics themes to enhance my teaching or recommend to students. Finally, given that the theme of dyscalculia is such a hot topic, I thought I might be able to learn more about it, as I have done with books about people on the autistic spectrum, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
So it was with great eagerness that I devoured this book. And it is with mixed feelings that I write this review. Therefore, I thought it would be best to write it in two parts, the first about its literary value, and the second about its value in understanding what dyscalculia means.
Part 1: Literary Value
This book has a lot going for it. For one thing, the characters are all unique and unconventional. While some other reviewers have criticized them as being too strange, I liked them because such people do exist, and reading about characters like these portrayed in positive ways can help promote tolerance and understanding.
Another strength is the plot, which compelled me to keep reading. I found it gripping, moving, and believable in its own world. It was also well written, which is only to be expected from a National Book Award winner. I enjoyed the story tremendously.
Part 2: Representation of Dyscalculia
First of all, a disclaimer: I am not an expert in dyscalculia. I have done some reading, and I have worked in math for many years with a variety of students, some of whom struggle with math due to poor math teaching or different learning styles, and a few who genuinely could not work with numbers. Some had parents who hired me as a private tutor precisely because they had such a struggle with math.
That being said, I do understand some things about dyscalculia. I know that it can result in the inability to have number sense, to know how to do some calculations one day and forget the next, perhaps to have no sense of time or money, poor sense of direction, and/or not much working memory. You can read more about it in my entry titled “Dyscalculia and Teaching Math.”
Therefore, I expected to see at least one of these struggles shown in the main character. Instead, Mike was able to multiply and divide large numbers in his head. For example, on p. 229:
“Good luck getting twenty dollars in one week! Even I could do the math – that was almost three thousand a day.”
Mike was able to keep appointments on time, manipulated numbers in his head, and while he got lost in a new town a few times, who doesn’t? The inability to read maps does not necessarily imply dyscalculia, and he always managed to find his way in the end.
The central conflict of the story is Mike’s relationship with his father, who is a genius in the math and sciences, and who wants his son to succeed in these too. However, the father has a great deal of trouble empathizing, relating to his son, understanding people in general, and being able to converse outside of his own areas of expertise. In short, Erskine has done a beautiful job of characterizing a man with a recognizably typical autistic spectrum disorder, without ever naming it. Mike’s great-aunt Moo even describes oddities in the father’s childhood behavior to confirm to us that these strange behaviors aren’t only due to grief from Mike’s mother’s death, or some other lifetime trauma.
Rather than dyscalculia, Erskine has characterized a boy who can manage the basics of math, but for whom advanced math holds no interest or appeal. That is true for a much larger segment of the population than those with dyscalculia! If the character did have dyscalculia, I wish she would have done as excellent a job in showing it in the character as she did with the father’s autistic behaviors. Granted, dyscalculia isn’t as well understood or “popular,” but I really think the book would have benefitted from an expert’s review before publication. I think marketing it as a book that addresses the topic of dyscalculia is misleading and could lead to a lot of popular misdiagnosis or self diagnosis.
Since I can’t recommend this book for learning about dyscalculia, here are a few resources I can recommend. Please add yours below in the comments. Also, if you disagree with my assessment, I would love to hear your point of view; I want to learn as much as I can about this topic.