Thursday, May 27, 2010

Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra, by Wendy Lichtman

Okay, time for that "occasional" part of this blog: the arithmetic. Actually, that's algebra, as studied and loved by eighth-grader Tess in this upper-MG title. But Tess goes one step further than love and study--she sees the world through math-colored glasses. She says: "We're spending a lot of time studying inequalities in algebra now, which makes sense, since who you're greater than (>) and who you're less than (<) is kind of the point of eighth grade." But this year Tess is discovering, as all higher math students eventually do, that a school subject everyone always assumed was known for its definitive answers--"Hey, either it's right or it's wrong"--is known by no such thing. Just like life, apparently, whether it's trying to figure out what to do about the coolest guy in school stealing an exam and making copies, or what to do when your mom thinks her co-worker (the same guy from whom you've taken a sculpting class) may have murdered his wife but she won't go to the police. Shocked by the death and her mother's suspicions, Tess is totally believable when she goes to her room and tries to graph the death on the x/y axes. But when her parents' voices bring her back to reality, she tears the paper to shreds and plots a nice, neat graph about riding her bike to her friend's house at 5 mph for 3 1/2 miles for her "real-life graph" homework, because "everyone knows that's the kind of thing you're supposed to be graphing in eighth grade."

There's a lot to love about this novel. Tess and her schoolmates ring true. The book is short and an easy read, smart choices to compensate for the automatic math phobia it must surmount. Tess's friendly first-person voice makes the math accessible. There's plenty else besides math going on. The teachers portrayed in the book are positive figures with real passion for their subjects, though some plain truth also comes out: Tess's history teacher is very close to math-illiterate. She suffers through his messed-up comments (such as 192, 77, 4, and 100 are prime numbers) and corrects them when she must, yet he's the teacher to whom Tess confides her mom's suspicions about murder and from whom she receives real help. The chapters have titles such as "The Quadratic Equation," "The Number Line," "Imaginary Numbers" and more. AND I really got a thrill out of this one: When her teacher gives Tess a glimpse of stuff that's "way out there" in higher math, her example is non-Euclidean geometry--geometry on a non-flat surface, such as a sphere, meaning, among other things, parallel lines DO cross. Because this was exactly the example I had thought of. When two math minds (even if mine's a tad rusty) think alike, it's a fun thing. :) There's a second book in the Do the Math series, called The Writing on the Wall, which I'll definitely be picking up.

22 comments:

Ruth Donnelly said...

Sounds like a story that would be hard to pull off--and that makes me eager to read it & see how the author kept the math focus from being off-putting. Thanks for posting this review!

wlichtman said...

Thanks for your wonderful, in-depth review of my book. I'm delighted that you're interested in reading the sequel, The Writing on The Wall, and very appreciative that you have the "occasional" arithmetic focus!
best,
Wendy Lichtman

Lisa Gail Green said...

I like the idea of incorporating math into an MG or higher.. Very interesting concept.

Marcia said...

Ruth -- Give it a try if you're at all inclined. I really think it succeeds.

Wendy -- Thanks so much for stopping in! I JUST finished The Writing on the Wall, and loved it!

Lisa -- It really is an interesting concept. I have a bit of math content in one of my WIPs, and my two mysteries use math and word puzzles. In WL's book, math is so "there" but never takes over the story.

Laura Pauling said...

Sounds like a good book. I love when book tie in title and chapter titles to their story.

And I'll send you 1K words soon. I have two stories I'm working on and am deciding which one to send you. :)

Blee Bonn said...

Wow, that was a great review. And I'm with everyone else, math is a totally interesting concept to use in a story and the chapter titles are very clever.

P.S. I sent you my 1000 words, but not sure you got it. :)

Marcia said...

Laura and Blee Bonn -- I'm glad to see the generally positive response to the idea of math in a story.

Blee Bonn, I'm glad you said something because I have NOT gotten your 1K words! Would you try a re-send on that?

AnneB said...

I loved Do the Math as well as the sequel, which I just read this spring. Glad to see you giving it some good press!

Marcia said...

I just finished the sequel, too. I hope there'll be more. Glad you liked it, Anne.

Mary Witzl said...

I like the math background too even though I am close to math-illiterate myself. And I really appreciate that the history teacher, though a math dunce, isn't treated like an idiot!

I love the line about eighth grade and figuring out your status. Decades after that awful time, but I can still remember that's exactly how it felt.

Marcia said...

Mary, I liked that line about eighth grade too. It's near the beginning of the book and really reeled me in.

Anne Spollen said...

Math, huh? That is a great idea and I would love to see how that works.

But suicide in MG? I guess there are subgenres like older MG, younger YA, then it depends on the kid.

Chapter titles sound really creative - thanks for the review!

Marcia said...

Anne, when the MC graphs something the graphs are shown as illustrations, which I think is cool. I kind of feel like a taboo has been smashed: "Math? You can't expect readers to go for MATH." I think the suicide -- plus the MC as an eighth grader -- make these books tween. Still, though, that's "upper middle grade" in more formal language. There's a definite difference in feel between these books and high-school YA. Yeah, there are so many sub-categories.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I'm putting this one on my list (says the math teacher)!

Marcia said...

I think you'll like it, Nora.

Vijaya said...

I loved this book and my son read it as a 10-year-old. We had many interesting discussions about mathematics. He didn't know that algebra could be so useful. Wait till he gets to trig ...

Marcia said...

I think it's awesome your son liked it, Vijaya, and that he enjoyed the math. He's already getting primed for trig! That reminds me of how I loved the WORDS associated with trig. Tangent and secant were two of my favorites.:)

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