August 2, 2018 § 2 Comments
In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works.
We weren’t but four nights in when the predictable happened: “Mommy, sorry to tell you this, but I actually read ahead last night after you left. And it gets really good. I kinda want to just read it on my own now.” And then I got to watch, delighted, as he carried the book everywhere for the next few days, reading it with the same gusto normally reserved for mythological monsters.
The best stand-alone novels do what most plot-driven series don’t even attempt: they allow the characters themselves—in all their glorious, complex humanity—to take center stage. More and more studies are linking reading literature to developing empathy, precisely because these rich character studies allow our child readers to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. When we inhabit, however briefly, the life of someone who looks or sounds different than us, who has a different background or orientation or set of circumstances, then it is that much harder to sit in silent (or not-so-silent) judgment when we meet someone similar in real life.
Reading realistic fiction shows our children that there is often a great deal more to people than meets the eye.
Of course, no highfalutin discussions about empathy are going to convince my ten year old to read more novels—hence, why I sometimes resort to sneaky tactics. That said, these sneaky tactics would never stand a chance if it weren’t for novels like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14) and Kelly Yang’s equally spectacular Front Desk (Ages 10-14), both of which put their protagonists in super stressful, downright near impossible predicaments, and then let us watch them problem-solve their way out. JP might be developing empathy around learning differences and mental health conditions (Lightning Girl) and immigrant experiences (Front Desk), but all he cares about it is that these protagonists are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar.
Lucy Callahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14), has not been to traditional school since she was struck by lightning four years ago in a freak accident and developed acquired savant syndrome. She is now in possession of a “supercomputer brain,” capable of solving math operations instantaneously. And not only school math. Give her a date, and she’ll instantly rattle off what day of the week it falls on. Tell her your birthday, and she’ll instantly tell you your age, right down to the second. She also has synesthesia, meaning she sees numbers as different colors.
My son, being a math enthusiast, figured this was just about the coolest thing that could happen to a person…until he read on. Just because you can solve a math problem in a few seconds doesn’t mean the rest of middle school is as easily calculated. Still, Lucy’s grandmother, her sole caretaker, insists that Lucy give public middle school a try.
At the top of the list of problems whose solutions are not readily apparent to Lucy is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, a side effect of her lightning-damaged brain and the main reason she would prefer to pass her days in the germ-controlled, non-judgmental security of her bedroom, with a chat room of Internet math geeks as her only companions. How does a girl, suddenly forced to go to traditional school, explain to her classmates why she has to sit and stand exactly three times before settling into her desk at school? Or why she whips out Clorax wipes to sanitize her desk, her bus seat, and her classroom’s doorknobs?
Lucy may not be able to hide her OCD—for which she faces no shortage of teasing—but she decides she can hide the other thing that sets her apart: her genius brain. Fearful of being seen as any more of a “freak” than she already is, Lucy figures out exactly how many math problems she needs to get wrong on her weekly quizzes to fly just below the radar. She even begins to make friends. But what happens when we become liked or accepted for someone we aren’t? What are the trade-offs when we deny the very part of us that makes us special?
Ironically, Lucy gets closer to answering these weighty questions when she solves a more concrete problem, one she initially has little interest in solving at all. Paired with two classmates for a mandatory community service project, Lucy finds herself dragged into the pinnacle of germ-infested places—an animal shelter—where her peers are bent on helping more dogs find long-term homes before they are turned over to the city to be euthanized. Lucy, it turns out, is just the Lightning Girl to calculate the statistical probability for each dog’s adoption, before turning the results into social media campaigns to help the dogs that need an extra nudge. While applying her amazing brain power to the data, Lucy inadvertently stumbles upon one of life’s most gratifying conundrums: How does helping others to solve their problems actually serve to liberate our own?
Helping others becomes a self-affirming drive of ten-year-old Mia Tang as well, a girl with a seemingly endless list of problems to solve and the protagonist of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (Ages 10-14). Mia’s family runs a motel in southern California, and Mia—when she’s not at school—gets to man the front desk. If having the run of an inn, which includes a pool and a tip jar, sounds like a pretty awesome gig for a pre-teen…read on. For one, Mia and her family are forbidden to use the pool. Or to have their own rooms (her parents sleep on the couch in the lobby). Or even to receive the full wages promised to them when they took the job.
Mia and her family are immigrants, based closely on Yang’s own family, who came to the United States from China in the 1980s as part of the most educated and skilled class of Chinese immigrants, only to find themselves reduced to menial jobs and a median yearly income of $8,000 (kudos to the fascinating Author’s Note at the book’s end). Why doesn’t Mia participate in gym class? She can’t risk injury, because her family doesn’t have health insurance. Why does she pocket her hamburger at school? To bring it back to her uncle, so he doesn’t have to dumpster-dive after his shift at the burger joint. As I witnessed Mia and her family trying to assimilate into American culture, while simultaneously making ends meet and harboring fellow immigrants, I could not stop thinking, My son has got to read this book. Everyone has got to read this book.
Fortunately, my son needed little coaxing on this one, owing to the novel’s fast pace and frequent brushes with police, loan sharks, and attempted assault. Still, Yang has done a commendable job of introducing young readers to an often grim reality through the eyes of a heroine who is anything but grim. Mia may not have the brain of a math genius, but she is exactly the energetic, resourceful, and kind problem-solver her family needs her to be. She not only looks for ways to improve the motel’s customer service, but she sets her sights on helping her community at large. Some of these challenges are easier than others. How do you wash hundreds of towels when the washing machine breaks? Throw ‘em in the bathtub, turn on the water, and start stomping. How do you help your family out of poverty? Enter an essay contest. How do you expose racial bias among the police force? Attempt to solve the whodunit yourself.
And yet, as with Lightning Girl, some problems confound even Mia, especially when they are influenced by layers of cultural bias. Why does it matter what brand of blue jeans she wears at school—or even that she wear blue jeans at all (instead of the pack-of-three floral pants that her mom sends her to school wearing)? Is the motel’s morally-bankrupt owner, the son of whom turns out to be Mia’s classmate, really as cruel as he seems? And when their relatives back in China report that they are all getting rich, why does Mia’s family refuse to leave America and go home?
If growing up is learning which problems you can solve, which are bigger than you, and which are better left unsolved, then The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Front Desk aren’t just entertainment. They can be read as how-to manuals for navigating the messiness, the cruelty, and the injustices that life sometimes deals. These stories give us bold, intelligent, complex girls as companions on this journey, and they remind us to look beyond the surface when we meet someone who seems nothing like us.
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Books published by Random House and Scholastic, respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!