Arithmetic is Silly?

I recently came across a debut YA author’s blog, and in the very short tagline about her, she included the peculiar claim that “arithmetic is silly.” To be fair, without context it’s hard to know the degree of irony that is meant. I don’t know what that means. I might have gotten the joke better if it turns out her debut novel is about a girl math whiz, but it’s about something else entirely. Since there’s no other context, I can only read it one way: that arithmetic, that vast field that his highly correlated to science and engineering, without which the technological marvels the define our world, is “silly” to her.

This is not the first time I have heard dismissive or self-deprecating things about math and reason, often by women, and often in our industry, and it makes me cringe.

OK, why did I find it important to slide “often by women” into that sentence? Because I suspect it patriarchy speaking, where math and science are serious and best left to men. Women are taught that math and science are unfeminine, and even as they become authors and in various ways champion feminism and girl power, some don’t quite make the leap to respecting the left halves of female brains. And men are less inclined to dismiss math because it’s a point of masculine pride to be savvy with numbers and plate switches.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with gender. There’s a sampling error here, because basically nine out ten people in the industry are women and so, as a consequence, any idea I hear expressed is going to “usually” come from a woman. And, books that turn scientific curiosity into marvelous children’s books often come from women, too.

It may have to do with creative arts, because there is a false dichotomy that imagination is at odds with reason. There are many great minds where the two are happily fused.

It may have to do with YA. I rarely hear such sentiments in the picture-book through middle grade world. I feel like there is a lot more “this is me, deal with it!” in YA than in books for younger readers, and the personas of YA authors reflect it. “Arithmetic is silly,” may be a code for “School subjects are silly.” It’s the kind of thing adults makes teens do, and the use of it beyond the rat race for SAT scores and college entrance is invisible to teens.

In this way, I just don’t get YA. I like middle grade, where our heroes and our readers still have a sense of wonder about the world. It keeps my sense of wonder alive. I would hate to categorically dismiss anything as “silly,” that might kindle the fire within one child who will go on to change the world.

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