Happy Belated World Book Day, everyone (it was last Thursday). Fittingly, on that day, my kids came home with armfuls of new books, their latest shipments from those Scholastic school fliers. When I was in elementary school, book orders were my favorite thing–so I decided when I had kids that Logan and Sadie would get to pick out a book every time they brought one home. (This has proven to be a costly decision, as Logan brings home book orders from daycare and preschool.)
Logan dumped his new books on the kitchen counter: the Transformers Addition & Subtraction Workbook he’d picked, which I’m sure he picked less for the math and more for the 1980s cartoon robots his dad has been watching again, and a book I’d picked from the flier–The Boy Who Loved Math.
I hate math. But it seems to come so naturally for Logan. I started to page through the book, and by page 3, I was hooked.
“Mama loved Paul to infinity. Paul loved Mama to ∞, too!”
Logan’s favorite number is infinity.
I continued to read and was struck by how many similarities there were between Logan and the book’s subject, a young boy named Paul Erdȍs*. Paul would grow up to be a famous mathematician who wanted to work on math problems “19 hours a day.” But as a boy, Erdȍs hated rules, couldn’t sit still, and “didn’t fit into the world in a regular way.”
I paused. Was this a kid’s book about autism?
The 2013 book is by Deborah Heiligman, and it never uses the label “autism.” Of course, it couldn’t — Erdȍs was never diagnosed as autistic. He was born in 1910, roughly two decades before autism had been researched and defined; Erdȍs would have been in his 30s before people outside of scientific circles were really aware of it (it could be argued people do not understand autism widely enough even today–it is a happy coincidence that World Book Day falls within Autism Awareness Month.)
But plenty of speculation exists that Erdȍs very likely fell somewhere on the spectrum. In Heilgman’s book, we read about Erdȍs as a young boy calculating the number of seconds a person had been alive, and we see him as a young man unable to butter bread. This would seem to be a strong argument for autism.
Though it happens by necessity, I think the book’s lack of label is its strength. Other entertaining books about kids on the spectrum are out there, perhaps most notably The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I admit I haven’t read many of them, but what I have seen tends to be aimed more toward middle-school kids, and they’re almost all subtitled “an autism story” or something similar. Without the subtitle, Heiligman’s book and its subject, Paul, aren’t marked as “different.” His life is unusual, of course, but young readers accept those peculiarities in the way that everyone is different–Jayden has freckles, Hayden is super tall, Mayson likes books and Braydon likes soccer.
On the other hand, while books with a clear purpose of advocating for autism acceptance are important, they have the drawback that young readers have to first take note of a marked difference. All kids know everyone is different, but now they are aware that some people are different. Even if there is acceptance, the difference is there, too.
So this is why I enjoy The Boy Who Loved Math so much. It speaks to my son with a character he can relate to, and it subtly reminds us all that differences–not necessarily differences–should be celebrated.
Feeling: Joyous (and a little nerdy)
*For any math nerds reading this: My Erdȍs number is likely 746. It’s safe to say that as a writer, I’ve never worked with anyone who’s worked with anyone who’s worked with anyone who worked with the famous mathematician.