We’ve all known kids like Emma-Jean Lazarus. A little kooky. A little odd. O.k… strange. Emma-Jean Lazarus is strange. You know, the kid who takes ukulele lessons and likes it. The kid who builds a working model of the International Space Station for Science Fair and no one is surprised. The kid whose parents are ornithologists and whose idea of fun is a rainy Saturday and a box of owl pellets. The kind of kid other kids avoid. Well, after meeting Emma-Jean Lazarus, you might think about “strange” a little differently.
Emma-Jean Lazarus is in grade-seven. Not long ago, her dad, a brilliant mathematician specializing in the work of French math-whiz Henri Poincare, died in an accident. Along with her loving mom, and a parrot for company, Emma-Jean is coping. Her dad isn’t really gone because she sees the world much as he did.
Lauren Tarshis gets it right in this short and sweet debut. There’s genuine quirky charm here. Tarshis understands teenage girls, and she manages to make her book both heartwarming and funny. Take the opening, for instance:
“Emma Jean Lazarus knew very well that a few of the seventh-grade girls at William Gladstone Middle School were criers. They cried if they got a 67 on an algebra test or if they dropped their retainer into the trash in the cafeteria. They cried if their clay mug exploded in the kiln and when they couldn’t finish the mile in gym. Two even cried in science, when Mr. Petrowski announced it was time to dissect a sheep’s eyeball. Of course Emma-Jean had no intention of participating in such a barbaric and unhygienic activity. But crying was not a logical way to express one’s opposition to the seventh-grade science curriculum.”
Emma-Jean Lazarus tries to bring her unflappable logic to the stickiest, most illogical of realms: teenage-girl land. Emma-Jean figures she can fix the messy social problems of her peers through simple, well-thought out solutions, like the neat steps of a mathematical proof. She isn’t interested because she really cares, she’s interested because the problems seem simple to fix. And for a while, it almost works. A few twists and turns occur before Emma-Jean realizes the wisdom in what her hero Poincare believed, “It is by logic that we prove, but it is in our hearts that we discover life’s possibilities.”
Confession time. I was more than a little like Emma-Jean Lazarus. Maybe that’s why I connect with this story. I didn’t have a parrot named Henri, and my dad was definitely not a celebrated mathematician (sorry dad), but I was happiest with my nose in a book, and after a while, I didn’t really care that I seemed destined to be on the outside of the cool crowd looking in. I like the fact that Emma-Jean doesn’t really “get it.” At first she doesn’t appreciate how social problems are complex, and her life is simpler for it.
The only thing about this book that didn’t feel completely convincing to me is the way that Emma-Jean finds a place among her peers way sooner than it is likely to happen in the “real world.” Weird kids struggle a lot, and it is a rare event for them to be taken under the wing of the second-coolest girl in school. Also, I wasn’t 100% sure that Emma-Jean would choose to step willingly into the fringes of teen culture. Minor quibbles indeed, when you consider how refreshing it is to close a book and feel like “geek power” has won a tiny victory against the cult of the gossip girl.
Go strange. Go math. Go Emma-Jean.
Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. Lauren Tarshis. Dial Books, 2007.