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5 stars

the miscalculations coverThe Miscalculations of Lightning Girl  by Stacy McAnulty

Random House, 2018.  Hardcover, 304 pages.

Includes information about Pi and Fibonacci sequence at the back.

Middle-grade fiction. Ages 8-13.

When Lucy was struck by lightning at age 8, she received brain damage which resulted in acquired savant syndrome. Lucy aka Lightning Girl’s mathematical abilities are pretty marvelous (as are the ways McAnulty demonstrates them), but they are not without difficulties. There are certain rituals that keep her favorite mathematical constant, Pi, aka a ‘song that can get stuck in her head’ from flooding her thoughts and effectively incapacitating her. She has to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit; she taps her foot 3 times; counts words… Then there is her phobia of germs.

Lucy is self-conscious about her genius status and the different way she interacts with the world. And now her Nana wants her (now 12) to complete 1 year of middle school before she’ll allow Lucy to go on to something collegiate. I think Nana is the only 1 (including the reader) who doesn’t express concern as to how this could go very badly, if not with excruciating awkwardness.

Pained scenes and interactions with labels like “freak” and “cleaning lady” ensue. Other typical middle-school (novel) conflicts follow: like the ex-BFF who’s now the queen bee; mothers of daughters; group projects; confrontations with teachers—and enemies; a sleepover/birthday party. Some typical positives also happen to occur: friends are made (IRL); some boundaries are kept, some ease; Lucy learns about other people and about herself.

Part of her agreement with Nana is that she has to make 1 friend—who does not solely exist in an on-line Math forum. Lucy makes 1 fairly quickly in Windy, and it’s part of the enjoyment (and heart-wrench) in the novel to watch it grow and strain and deepen in a major confrontation. The friendship she makes with Levi runs opposite: serious conflict and cold-shoulder at the opening moving to easy and a rescuing companionship at the close. The interactions between the three are humorous and relatable. And then there is Cutie Pi.

Lucy, Windy, and Levi eventually choose Pet Hut for their community project. For Lucy, it was a decision based in math. Fortunately, McAnulty makes statistics interesting. That we’re talking dogs in need of homes helps, which is why Windy (who would save the world 1 grand plan at a time) and Levi (who loves dogs) agrees. I appreciate the way McAnulty finds a way to apply all their interests to the assignment. I also appreciate the way she integrates Nana’s belief in signs into the equation. Lucy falls in love with 1 dog and between conflicts of friendship and this affection she’s found, McAnulty had me in tears (and not the hilarious kind).

There are a whole series of build-ups to those final pages of the novel. Pages that have Lucy admitting to her Nana that “this miscalculation has nothing to do with math.” 2 stand-out favorite scenes of mine: Telling Ms. Fleming “No.” and The showdown with Maddie.

A noteworthy aspect to The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is that Lucy/Lightning Girl isn’t the only vivid character McAnulty casts in the novel. Levi may not express as exuberantly as Windy (quite the opposite, actually), but they are both interesting characters who take their passions quite seriously. In fact, their passions affect how they move about in the world (Halloween costumes), where they spend their time (ArtBoom), the rituals they perform (taking photographs/fliers). I wouldn’t exclude Windy’s mom, Nana, Uncle Paul, Claire or the math teacher Mr. Stoker from the list of Lucy-like-characters. McAnulty will define reality and normal for her contemporary novel—and it will resonate.

While Lucy will still maintain some of her atypical protagonist status, as the story progresses, we are drawn to see her as normal as any other unusual character. Lucy becomes Lucy. Too, it’s that McAnulty is so successful at reminding her readers and her characters that they are of value. They shouldn’t be afraid to express who they are because they are needed. What is popularly “normal” is unnecessary and undesirable; being honest, functioning, and in relationships are both necessary and desirable.

Lucy may not grasp Windy’s struggle with the scripts we’re given, but McAnulty does and in The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl she works to undermine them. For 1, she makes that “popularly dreaded” subject math fascinating. 2, she makes the “popularly dreaded” middle school characters, including the queen bee mean girl, more human and thus more provocative. Lucy was provoked to wonder about what and who really matters; by the close of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, so will the reader.

line clipartRecommended for all the libraries and book clubs; contemporary fiction readers; fans of books involving dogs and/or of empathy-driven novels. The novel that kept coming to my mind was Ali Benjamin’s remarkable The Thing About Jellyfish; 2, Erin Kelly Entrada’s Hello, Universe.

Diversity-wise: outside of what can be gleaned from the review, there are 2 significant characters of color, and 1 with 2 moms, also included: class/wealth difference.

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