“One chapter,” I said to myself. “Okay, two.” In this way, I read Stacy McAnulty’s middle grade novel in two sittings!
What I enjoyed:
Math References to pi and Fibonacci, plus a main character who calculates quicker than a calculator makes for a brain-tickling theme. Better than that, math is used to save shelter dogs, and the book reveals how math is all around us. Better than even THAT is the use our main character makes of math. Rather than being merely the author’s decoration, math is the MC’s coping mechanism for anxiety. Sometimes math gets in her way, but mostly Lucy Callahan uses her gift as a way to grasp this ungraspable world. Naturally, her inner journey hinges on going where no formula has gone before.
Friendships Though Lucy starts out with only online math friends, her chances of making an IRL (in-real-life) friend increase exponentially when she’s forced to attend a public middle school. Though it’s rocky for a long time, and not without anger and tears, caring about a couple of people and having them care about you turns out to be worth it. This book focuses on Lucy’s new relationships, and I appreciate that one is inter-racial and the other inter-class-al, with both feeling natural.
Challenges The reader sees at once that Lucy’s gift is also her curse. A lightning strike left her a math savant, but also a “freak.” She hides her talent at school, but we can’t be who we aren’t for long. Life drags her into facing one fear after another — her phobia of germs, her wish to stay with her online math peers rather than plain kids, and her aversion to smelly, lick-y dogs.
First person works well here to bring the reader into Lucy’s mind, which is an interesting place! We experience her OCD first-hand and understand the psychological costs to not completing her routines. The plot moves along well, keeping the character arc and action arc connected, with action pushing Lucy’s emotional journey forward. The mean girls make their appearances, but they don’t dominate the scenes. The adults facilitate, but they don’t take over. The friends have their mini-arcs, growing and changing, too, underscoring the book’s hopeful tone.
Consider reading this one yourself and then handing it off immediately to the nearest 10-14-year-old!
Meet Piper Perish, up close and personal! This first person, journal-style book gives the reader a front row seat to Piper’s brain, and that’s a fun place to be because she’s an artist, a teen finding her way in a new city, and a gal who is discovering that she can make meaning, not just money — which is good because she has a lot more meaning than money!
Young adults will key into Piper’s search for authenticity in the fashion world of New York City. Plus, it’s fun to see what everyone is wearing! They’ll also celebrate her triumphant assertion of her own identity when she stops letting others use her talents and takes the steering wheel of her own artistic life. The romantic subplot works better than most because the not-the-one guy becomes a friend. Readers may want to check out the book preceding this one, Piper Perish, but it’s not required.
For NYC buffs, this book holds a special treat. As Piper explores the city — from the furniture left on curbs to the Empire State Building to homeless folks to the iconic public library (remember the lions?) — she sketches and creates a hashtag, #NYSeen, for all the spots she’s seen. These come in handy later, but you’ll have to read the book to see how!
I enjoyed my peek into Piper’s first months in NY, as her initiative and creativity grow and she comes into her own as an adult. Piper’s voice is one I’m going to miss now that the book has ended. Her ups and downs are fun to follow because her journal (the book in our hands) keeps her honest. She admits to faults and conflicting feelings as well as confessing her hopes and values. Ultimately, Piper succeeds in matching her insides to her outsides, as she says, bringing the best of herself off the page and into the world.
“What are you?” my friend’s nephew was asked. He is Peruvian and African American.
I’ve been asked this, too. A lot. In fact, mixed kids report being asked this quite a bit. Their skin is brown, but their eyes are blue. Or their hair isn’t what people expect, given their bone structure. I sound white, but look vaguely indigenous. I have been assumed to be Chinese, Navaho, Mexican, and European. I’m actually Guatemalan-American, descended from basically Brits and Mayans.
Born in Iowa, my Guatemalan side stood out there. I was the only brown kid in my class, maybe in my school. The town was small enough that my Guatemalan dad was a bit of a celebrity. I never heard a cruel word about my parents’ marriage, nor my permanent tan. When I got to Texas, I was seen differently. Latinxes thought I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t. But more than once, a light kid insulted immigrants from south of Texas, not realizing that I was the child of one. I was first asked “What are you?” at church, another time in a job interview, and many times since.
Admittedly, the question is dehumanizing. Along with “Where are you from?” since mostly, we mash-ups in the US would say “Here!” But, you know what, I don’t mind it the way I used to. I think most askers are trying to open a new folder in their brains and aren’t sure what to call it. Undoubtedly, other askers are trying to fit the mixed person into a box that carries assumptions and stereotypes, but the people I’ve run into are mainly curious. They’re often intrigued when they find out my background and think it’s cool. If we lived in Brazil, we could visit three states that actually designate a holiday, June 27, as the day to celebrate “mestizos,” or mixed folks.
It’s not as easy for every mixed person out there, though. Many speak of taunting coming from both sides — name-calling, ostracizing, and the implication that they aren’t “black enough” or “Korean enough” or whatever-enough to be part of the community. Barack Obama was criticized for marking Black on the 2010 census because he his half white and half black. His choice shows that he knows he is perceived as black, and therefore, is living the experience of a black man, despite his mother’s being white.
Mixed people don’t always admit their mixed-ness, and for good reason. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for two people to marry regardless of race, it could be damaging to reveal a mixed bloodline. In overtly racist areas, the stigma of having a black ancestor could threaten livelihoods and even lives. Also, the US census only starting offering the choice to check multiple race boxes in 2000. Statistics show an increase in mixed kids in this century partly because it’s now possible to report it.
On the other hand, mixed marriages and mixed kids are more noticeable now than ever. The famous royals, Harry and Meghan, aren’t alone. We probably are experiencing an increase in the real number of multi-racial people in the USA. The UK shows rises as well.
The up-side is that we mixed kids tend to grow up appreciative of cultural variety and are fluent in more than one way of being. We live the truth that our parents’ human-ness is the same, regardless of race. Some of us are bi-lingual, and some grew up in two faith traditions. It’s natural to look at us as symbols of harmony among all peoples.
Symbols, maybe, but we aren’t the solution to ending racism forever. If only. For that, we need to work on many fronts for years to come, including emphasizing how artificial all divisions really are.
But let’s celebrate our multi-ness and the bravery of our parents. Let’s teach people to say, “What’s your background?” if they’re curious and not intending to insult. Let’s enjoy the creativity and flexibility of mind that mixed folks add to this world.
And when it comes to answering the question, “What are you?”, as my friend and I said that day about her nephew, in unison, “Tell them you’re a human being.”