Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Audio Review - The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Mike Frost knows a little something about unusual people. After all, his dad is not what you'd call a normal guy -- math genius, yes, but not like other guy's dads. But having an odd dad doesn't prepare Mike for spending the summer with relatives he's never met. Poppy and Moo, Mike's great-uncle and great-aunt, are certainly strange. Moo names inanimate objects and thinks her car, Tyrone, has a mind of his own. Poppy doesn't talk to anyone and rarely even moves out of his chair. And the more Mike gets to know Poppy and Moo's friends and neighbrs, the more Mike realizes that his relatives are hardly the oddest ducks in town.

To top that off, Mike's supposed to be working on an engineering project with Poppy. In fact, that's why Mike's dad sent him out here for the summer. But instead, Mike soon finds himself deeply embroiled in a fundraising drive to help Moo's friend adopt a child from Romania. Before long Mike is coordinating town events, working out of a homeless man's "office", and trying everything to get Moo to give up driving Tyrone. Oh, and above all, keeping his dad from finding out what he's really working on. This is turning out to be way more complicated than a physics problem!

I am really torn about how I feel about The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine. On the one hand, there are some great lessons to be had here, about grief and loss, about coming to terms with major life shifts, and learning to find the secret strength within yourself. Mike is pretty down on himself when the book opens, mainly because he feels he'll never live up to his father's dreams thanks to his learning disabilities. It's only when Mike starts reaching out and helping others -- Moo, Past, Misha in Romania -- that he is able to see the potential for his own future. In addition, Mike learns a little something about making things happen, and how real life is not black-and-white like a math equation.  The best part is that Erskine delivers all of these big truths in a fast-paced, hilarious narrative. Really, there are some moments you have to hear to believe, especially where the always entertaining Moo is concerned (voiced surprisingly convincingly by Noah Galvin).

But, as an adoptive parent, I did have some issues with the way the whole "bring home an orphan from Romania" storyline was handled. First, there are many, many references to "saving" Misha by bringing him to the US. This is a tough one, because it implies that international adoption is the only solution for Misha. While it's true that in many countries domestic adoption is unpopular or nonexistent, most of us agree that the best thing is for children to stay in their home country. Leaving behind your home and heritage represents a compromise that many times will result in a lot of grief and loss for a child, who will not necessarily be grateful to be in another country.

Another point that bothered me is that Mike and his friends take on the fundraising and paperwork completion for the prospective adoptive parent. This is just not how things work in international adoption, as most of us know -- ethical adoptions require months and years of paperwork, background checks, verifications, and most of all legal processes on the parts of both countries. This is not something that a third party can do for you; as a prospective adoptive parent, you have to do all of this work on your own. Much of this has to be in place before a family is ever matched with a child. And the idea that the money can be cobbled together in less than a month, while it makes for great dramatic tension, is just unbelievable in all senses.

These are small points (and there are others) that won't get in the way of the story for most people. For me, though, it gave me pause, mainly because of the way the potential mother is written -- as though she is barely involved in her own adoption process, and that she perceives herself as "saving" a child. If Sprout does read this when he's older, it will give us the opportunity to talk about how people outside the adoption community view the process. We can talk about how much a child gives up when he/she is adopted, and how that might make a child like Misha feel. We can discuss parental motivations in adoption, and how it's critical to think more about parenting in the long haul rather than just completing the adoption. And we can talk about how wonderful it is that this town pulls together to make the adoption a reality -- and how that is a very simplified look at a complicated, and life-altering process for all involved.

Bottom line: I'd still recommend this, but with reservations. It is hard for me to get around the absolutely idealized version of international adoption, and the larger messages that sends about relationships and family bonds. It's definitely a novel with a great deal of heart, and one whose characters will make you laugh and cry in just about equal measures; if you can look past the adoption missteps, you'll find a great deal of value here.

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine, audio published by Recorded Books
Ages 12 up
Source: Library
Recommended, with reservations

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