soup of the day: the absolute value of mike by kathryn erskine!


Hey, hey!

The clock on the wall says it’s time to celebrate Kathy Erskine’s brand new middle grade novel, The Absolute Value of Mike (Philomel, 2011)!

Before we proceed any further, please select your party shoes. You may choose between yellow sneakers,


or duck slippers (quacking optional).


Heck, let’s go all the way. Put on this pink “Life is Good” cap while you’re at it.


There now! Ready?

I was very excited to read Kathy’s new book because I absolutely adored her National Book Award winner, Mockingbird (Philomel, 2010). Maybe you’re thinking what I was thinking: How could she possibly top that? By showcasing her versatility and writing something completely different, of course!

This touching and refreshingly offbeat story is powered by Kathy’s intuitive perception of human nature, flawless comic timing and keen ability to craft quirky, unforgettable characters. It reveals her deep conviction to tolerance and promotes mutual understanding as opposed to prejudgment.  

          Photo Literacy/flickr

When his math genius father decides to teach in Romania for six weeks one summer, Mike is sent to rural Pennsylvania to stay with relatives so he can help his great-uncle with a special engineering project (building an “artesian screw”). Since there’s nothing Mike’s dad would like more than to have his son follow in his footsteps, he hopes this experience will help Mike get into a prestigious math magnet school. He may be a brilliant mathematician, but sadly, Dr. Frost really doesn’t know his son at all. Mike has a math learning disability, has no interest in engineering, and would really rather not be reminded of how pitifully short he falls of his father’s expectations. Besides, he’s never even met these relatives.

Once he gets to Do Over (“Donover,” but the “n” in the town’s sign went missing long ago), he discovers there is no artesian screw, just a town full of wacky people hoping to help the local minister adopt a boy from Romania. Most have recently lost someone and ultimately benefit from the “people smart” leadership skills Mike never realized he had.

His great-uncle Poppy, for example, is physically and emotionally “frozen” following the death of his only son, and is unable to follow through with supervising an “artisan’s crew” to build wooden boxes for the adoption project. Half-blind, wild driver, “collector of lost souls” great-aunt Moo is doing her best to cope despite her grief-paralyzed husband, monetary problems, and the understandable limitations of a well-intentioned but overwhelmed 80-something-year-old. Add to the mix a mysteriously atypical homeless man, a pierced and punky musically talented bank employee, and ‘three old stooges’ with a penchant for making porch pals, and you’ve got plenty of fertile ground for off-the-wall humor, surprises around every corner, and remarkable character growth.

Mike carries a blue Lego brick in his pocket at all times (Alicee<3/flickr).

Mike may not be academically smart, but the pain of his dysfunctional relationship with his father fuels his empathy for others, as he builds the emotional bridges necessary to “engineer life,” make things happen, bring people together, and finally realize his own self worth. Kathy has done a beautiful job of balancing serious issues with comic portrayals, and young readers will easily identify with Mike’s longing for a normal family life, frustrating parental opposition and search for empowerment. Character motivations are especially well-drawn, and the book’s overarching themes of empathy, community building, cooperation, communication, healing, and redemption have universal resonance.

In our society, much is made of the inability of males to express their emotions, so it was wholly satisfying to read a good “boy book” focusing on human relationships. When a 14-year-old is capable of provoking two adult males to confront their grief, and can finally understand what makes his dad tick in order to foster their relationship, it’s definitely worth noting and inspires hope.

Now, let’s all congratulate Kathy on another fabulous book. The alphabet soup kitchen helpers are serving up today’s celebration soup in a handmade, handpainted wooden box. In the spirit of The Absolute Value of Mike, we would do well to remember that there is nothing more important than human connections, for it is often other people who bring out the best in us and show us our true value. Dip your spoons, everyone, and Slurrrrrp!!

Today’s Special: Artesian Stew (Romanian spice + zero calories = 40,000 yums)

Of course some of the residents of Do Over have brought extra food for our party. Poppy wants to share his Scrapple, his sole source of nourishment:


Once you’ve picked those pig guts out of your teeth, move onto dessert. Moo wants you to taste some of the snickerdoodles she made to sell for the adoption project:

Pinch My Salt/flickr

and please help yourself to a Felix the Cat cupcake (her late son Doug loved Felix):


Gladys (bank assistant manager) likes these guitar cookie pops because she sings in a band with her boyfriend Numnut:

Charming Chelsea/flickr

but under NO circumstances would Past (the homeless guy) want you to eat this Twinkie! Back away from it right now!

elana’s pantry/flickr

But he’s more than happy to see you have some of this blueberry spread:

Okay, you know the drill. Race your shopping carts to your local indie or click through to your fave online bookseller to score your very own copy of The Absolute Value of Mike. If you go to a brick and mortar store, wear your duck slippers, yellow sneakers and/or pink baseball cap. If you own any Clarks shoes or sandals, that will do, too. Compliment the cashier on his/her ciphering skills and don’t forget the secret password, “Misha.”

Thanks for writing this cool book, Kathy. We love you!

by Kathryn Erskine
published by Philomel, June 2011
Fiction for ages 9-12, 256 pages
Cool themes: self-realization, families, social dynamics, tolerance, communities, relatives, math, homelessness, cooperation, grief, healing, hope

♥ Kathryn Erskine’s official website and blog.

♥ Awesome review by Gary D. Schmidt in the New York Times.

♥ Interview at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors.

♥ Blog reviews: Waking Brain CellsA Year of ReadingAs the Page Turns, Challenging the Bookworm, Not Acting My Age, Prose and Kahn, Searching for a Good Read?. 

♥ Check out Audrey Vernick’s Literary Friendships for “Chatting with Mike.”



Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights

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