You know when you are searching for an apartment and you see certain words and instantly understand that they have a different meaning? Like, “garden apartment” means basement. Or, “charming” means old with low water pressure. Books are the same. We know “poignant,” “tender,” and “heartbreaking” all mean sad. But do kids know that? Do they know what these buzzwords actually mean? Take a look at how Solving for M by Jennifer Swender is being sold:
Perfect for fans of Raymie Nightingale and The Fourteenth Goldfish, this heartfelt middle-grade novel seamlessly melds STEAM content with first loss in an honest and striking debut.
When Mika starts fifth grade at the middle school, her neat life gets messy. Separated from old friends and starting new classes, Mika is far from her comfort zone. And math class is the most confusing of all, especially when her teacher Mr. Vann assigns math journals. Art in math? Who’s ever heard of such a thing?
But when challenges arise at home, Mika realizes there are no easy answers. Maybe, with some help from friends, family, and one unique teacher, a math journal can help her work out problems, and not just the math ones.
Debut author Jennifer Swender delivers poignant prose and illustrator Jennifer Naalchigar brings Mika’s journal to life in this perfect equation of honesty plus hope that adds up to a heartwarming coming-of-age story.
Would you know that this book puts Mika in a position to sit along the sidelines as her single Mom deals with a sudden and wholly unexpected diagnosis of melanoma? Would “challenges arise at home” instantly let an adult or child understand that Mika’s whole world is changed overnight with her mother’s illness? Does “messy” convey the idea that Mika’s hyper-supportive, organized, and involved is Mom suddenly spending days in bed and no one is explaining anything to Mika? I certainly didn’t.
I wish the publishers would make this more obvious. Because this is a really hard story to read but wonderfully written. There was so much to love about this book that had nothing to do with her Mother’s cancer that could easily be missed.
Some middle grade readers will love this book for highlighting the strangeness of making new friends when life-long ones are right there. This will resonate with so many 11-14 year olds who question why different schools and adolescence means that sometimes friends simply drift apart. No one is mad, they are just different. This book is also wonderful for showing the deep and abiding importance of giving people a second look.
But, without a little warning, this book becomes shockingly hard to read. This is especially true for kids whose parents are dealing with illnesses of their own. In a world full of trigger warnings, why can’t we give kids fair warning that there are some serious themes present? Or, do we simple expect that if they watch Disney / Pixar movies then they probably know someone will get sick or die anyway because it is everywhere in children’s media?
What this book did so masterfully, and what the world needs so much more of, is show the immeasurable importance of teachers in a child’s life. Mika has never been good at Math. She has the heart and soul of an artist. Her Math teacher has the students keep journals and uses their personal interests to connect them to new Math content. Mika uses art, her friend uses baking, and another friend attacks the subject from a science angle. While teaching them to love a difficult (and often hated) subject he also provides his students with a safe place to be every single day. And, in the chaos of middle school and the upheaval of her Mother’s diagnosis, Mika finds acceptance and peace in math class. In math class.
I liked this book. Tremendously. And I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But I do want parents and kids to know that the “challenge” this book is referring to is cancer. Some kids will be absolutely fine with everything this book has to offer. But, I would not recommend this book for the students and children in your life for whom anxiety is an issue or for those who have dealt with sickness and loss.
Tell me, please!
How do you feel about more frank thematic disclosure for children and middle grade books?