2 out of 4 stars
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I love math, and I'm sure a lot of the reason I enjoy it is because I can remember numbers way better than anything else. I live by to-do lists, timers, and notepad files, yet somehow my brain holds onto random numbers for fun. So when I heard about dyscalculia - essentially dyslexia with numbers - it sounded like my own personal kryptonite! This learning challenge is highlighted in Cynthia Fabian's The Counting Game via the point of view of a fictional eleven-year-old child, Max, who has dyscalculia. The Counting Game weighs in at just under 200 pages, and it follows Max's challenges in school with dyscalculia and the bullying that comes along with it, as well as his learning to find his way in life. Max makes friends, learns to love music, and even becomes terrifically skilled with a guitar while being supported by a loving, caring family.
Unfortunately, the presumed star of the show - dyscalculia - is massively downplayed. It reminded me a lot of the times I fell for a movie I'd never heard of because the cover showed an actor I really liked, and then realized that actor is only in the movie for 5 minutes. Dyscalculia is the star of the show for a while, and it pops up again a handful of times throughout the rest, but the real leading role of this book is a sickly-sweet sense of optimism. No issue in The Counting Game lasts long at all, and only one has (positive!) long-lasting consequences. Dyscalculia itself just seems to vanish for the longest time during Max's twelfth birthday party when he decides to run around counting things. Worse yet, it doesn't even seem consistent when it's the focus of the book: on one page his mom tries to help him figure out what 20% savings on $99 would be, then shortly after that he's at school and a teacher asks about Pi Day. Not only does he volunteer himself to answer the question, but he also hops up and walks to the blackboard (without any prompting) and writes down Pi to the 8th place from memory. Then it's written that he copied it into his notebook too and that it was "just copying", but there's no mention of how difficult this is for him to write down or why he's able to remember that specific number so well.
I also really wanted to learn more about dyscalculia itself. From the research I've done on it, it often affects far more than just reading numbers out of order. According to Wikipedia, in addition to being considered "the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia", dyscalculia can include "difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, performing mathematical calculations and learning facts in mathematics" as well as "difficulties with time, measurement, and spatial reasoning". I'm sure there are varying levels of dyscalculia, just like anything, but I wanted to see more of the things in Max's everyday life that it affected. Showing him get disappointed when there were 9 wheatballs (vegetarian meatballs) and he guessed that meant his mom, dad, and himself each would get 2 was a great touch, but it was one of the very few examples in the book. I also expected more about how to try to face it and live life with it; the author showed Max learning to use a sheet that's tinted green and stated that Cuisenaire rods come in handy for him as well, but there wasn't enough explanation for me to understand how the former helps or how the latter works.
In fact, if you asked me to tell you what this book was actually about, I wouldn't even say dyscalculia. I'd say "a family that goes out of their way - often to a ridiculous extent - to be as polite, welcoming, and nice as possible." For example, a girl is brought into the home temporarily at one point, and within a day or two, they're talking about wanting to officially adopt her even though she still has a parent. The handful of problems that do come up are played off like they're nothing; Max's father seems very ill at one point, but when he goes to the doctor Max and his mother go elsewhere to have fun instead of going with him and supporting him, which was fine anyway since the issue was far more minor than I would've guessed. During Max's birthday party, in the middle of a restaurant, he ends up playing his guitar and singing a song after running around counting things on people's plates. Not only does no one get upset about it, but people also start dancing and having a good time around him.
Then there are the consistency issues. I counted at least two times when the author wrote from the mother's point of view instead of Max's, including the title of a chapter. Then there's the talent show; a fair amount is written about the moments leading up to Max and Tori (the girl he likes) doing their duet, but then they skip entirely over the duet itself. Yet somehow, pages before that, the two of them are shown on stage performing. I'm not sure if these scenes were somehow shown out of order or what. Best-case scenario, it was merely out of order; worst-case scenario, they were going on stage twice and the author merely skipped over the second act entirely. But worst of all was the number of formatting issues throughout the whole book. Most paragraphs are indented but some aren't, and then some paragraphs fully indented, not just the first line. Also, there are several blank lines between lots of pages, especially in the middle of paragraphs, which repeatedly broke my flow while reading. On the bright side, while there are countless formatting issues, there were only 4 grammatical errors.
But the one scene that sticks out the most to me is the way Max's parents deal with a particular instance of bullying: a mean Facebook post about Max that gets nearly 300 likes on it. It's not a meme or funny or clever, and yet despite the average entire grade of a grade school being less than 100 kids, the post gets nearly 300 people to click "like" on it. This could've been a terrific way to show the pain of bullying and how to properly deal with it as either an adult or a child, but instead it genuinely sounded like the parents were going to message all 287 people who liked the post to try to find out who posted it (the poster went by a nickname). This is perhaps the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard and would've gotten Max bullied for the rest of eternity, although the parents asking the principal if they can press criminal charges when they found out who "Evil One" was wasn't much better.
The Counting Game deals with numerous themes, and while the book really could've done a lot of good by showing the family as a good example of how to face them head-on, it all just seems unrealistically positive and easy for them. I couldn't relate to any of it despite so much of this book mirroring my life. I don't even know who it's written for: it doesn't show enough of the issues with dyscalculia to recommend it to parents of children with dyscalculia, and I have trouble recommending it to kids or adults since it doesn't seem aimed at either. Despite all of my negativity, there were some things I liked: I appreciated that Max went through tutoring and put hard work into improving in math (I just wish it was shown way more), and it was terrific that his parents explained the link between studying music and math. I loved that Max's parents played "games" with him that helped him learn new vocabulary and improve at math throughout the day. Max also managed to break away from being thought of as nothing but the kid who's bad at math and focused his life on his newfound love of music and the few close friends he made. He was polite, kind, and thoughtful, and he stood up for his friends, even when his other friends were the ones who were badmouthing them. With that said, nearly every aspect of this book needs to be improved on quite a lot. I'd give The Counting Game 1.5 stars if I could, but since I can't I'll have to give it 2 out of 4 stars. I'd only recommend this to two groups of people: parents who want their kids to see how polite and kind kids can actually be and how to resist focusing on the negative things in their lives (with the warning that they may think life is supposed to be easier than it is) and adults who genuinely try to save everyone all the time (with the warning that, somehow, this family has an unlimited amount of money and resources).
The Counting Game
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