The Absolute Value of Mike

by Kathryn Erskine
ages: 10+
First sentence: “My cell phone rang just as I was about to crush the Emperor of Doom’s trebuchet and save the villagers from certain annihilation.”
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Mike and his Dad get along okay. His dad, a professor of mathematics and engineering, handles the earning of money and the being of genius; Mike handles everything else (from bills to shopping). It’s an okay life, with one exception: Mike constantly feels like he’s not living up to his father’s expectations. He feels like his dad wants him to follow in his footsteps, and Mike is just. not. good. at math.

Then one summer, Mike is sent to live with is great-aunt and uncle, Moo and Poppy, while his dad heads over to Romania for a six-week teaching gig. There’s one parting instruction from his father: help Poppy build an artesian screw (yeah, your guess is as good as mine). Once he gets to Do Over, PA (it was Donover, but the sign lost it’s n.) he discovers that things aren’t what he (or his father) thought they would be. Poppy and Moo’s only son died four month ago, and Poppy hasn’t moved from his chair, or spoken, since. To say that Moo is quirky is an understatement. She’s half-blind, and drives her car (which she has charmingly named Tyrone and speaks about if it’s a real person) recklessly. She’s trying to hold things together while Poppy falls apart, but is only barely making it. Thankfully she has other things to focus on: rescuing resident punk-rocker Gladys from an abusive boyfriend and helping the town raise money so Karen, a local minister, can adopt a 5-year-old boy, Misha, from Romania.

It turns out that there is no artesian screw, either: Poppy’s supposed to be making boxes to sell to help Karen raise money, but doesn’t have a crew. (Artisan’s crew. Ha.) So it falls to Mike to rally the town, get people moving, and help Karen raise the money, and by doing so, he finds his true calling. Now if only he could tell his dad.

Two things struck me about this novel: the town is full of requisite small-town quirky people (why is it that only backward, quirky people live in small, rural towns?), and there was a lot of death and rejection in this book. It seemed that every character, starting with Mike, was dealing with loss in some form or another. (Perhaps Erskine likes dealing with death? It was a main theme in Mockingbird as well.) It could have made for a very depressing book, but instead Erskine chose to focus on the healing. Although I disagreed with the way Mike handled things (I don’t see how being mean to an octogenarian would truly motivate him to get out of the chair), I understood the purpose behind it: even if you’re suffering from loss, life does go on, and healing will eventually happen.

Additionally, the book addressed the way we misunderstand and judge other people. From his lack of communication to his father to his snap judgements of the homeless man he meets, Mike is constantly mis-perceiving people. It’s a hard lesson for him to learn, but in Erskine’s hands, one that doesn’t come off as heavy-handed.

With all the quirkiness and hopefulness, it’s a nice story. But it’s missing the spark it takes to be truly great. Even so, it’s a good little book, one that I think kids will like.

That said, it ended up being a very hopeful book. While I didn’t necessarily

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