I was a girl who was good at writing. I was a girl who was bad at math. That makes me a typical female main character in a children’s book.
For a delicious, but cringe-inducing list of clichés in children’s books, check out Joelle Anthony’s list of the 25 “most overused things” in middle grade fiction. “Main character who wants to write” is on the list as cliché number four. I thought I remembered “Main character who wants to write and who also hates math,” but apparently I was wrong there. But think of Anne of Green Gables. Think of Betsy Ray of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. Other examples are probably popping into your brain right now.
Not that girls are alone in hating math. Boys can hate math, too. My single most successful book, in terms of sales, has been my chapter book 7 x 9 = Trouble!, followed by its sequel, Fractions = Trouble! Apparently lots of kids can relate to the story of a third grader who is struggling to master the times tables and who fears humiliation when his parents hire a tutor to help him with fractions. The books have become popular classroom read-alouds to sweeten the pain of arithmetic. While Wilson tussles with math, I provided him with classmate Laura, who excels in math (and helps teach Wilson that finger trick for learning the 9-facts) and Josh, who falls in the middle of the math bell curve. Kids write me saying, “I’m like Laura. I love math,” or “I’m like Josh, I’m pretty good at math.” And the Wilsons of the world can read the book and know that they aren’t alone.
But now I decided it was time to write a book about a girl who unabashedly adores math. Annika Riz, Math Whiz comes out in May, the follow-up to Kelsey Green, Reading Queen (Kelsey is another book-loving, math-hating girl, I must confess). Annika lives in a house with a math-patterned tablecloth; she sleeps between math-patterned sheets. Her dog is named Prime, for prime number. One of Annika’s goals in the book is to teach Prime to count; another is to win a Sudoku contest at the public library. (One ambition meets with considerably more success than the other). And it’s Annika’s love for math that saves the day during the class bake sale at the school carnival.
I’m hoping that teachers will share this one, too, so that girls who love math will say, “Yes! That’s me!” C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” I’m hoping that just as Wilson comforts kids who struggle with math, Annika can cheer on kids who just happen to love math more than anything in the world.