Jennifer Swender is the author of several picture books and early readers. Her debut novel, Solving for M, tells the story of Mika, a girl whose new math class helps her deal with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. We loved this book for its elements of realism and the unique, sympathetic characters. We were thrilled to interview Jennifer Swender about Solving for M for this month’s feature.
RapunzelReads: Who is your favorite character in Solving for M, and why?
Jennifer Swender: Hmmm. That's a tough one. My favorite character can change depending on how I'm feeling or what I'm thinking about, and I like them all for so many different reasons. I like Mika's honesty and willingness to grapple with tough ideas. I enjoy Mr. Vann's wackiness, but also his quiet understanding of how best to reach his students. I love Dee Dee's confidence and Chelsea's thoughtfulness. I like Mika's mom's quiet logic and her friend Jeannie's flair for the dramatic. I love the way illustrator Jennifer Naalchigar drew Mika's Math Journal #22 where we see how the various people in Mika's life would approach a “real life problem.” They are all different. They are all right. They are all necessary.
RR: What inspired you to write Solving for M?
RR: Why did you choose to write a book about math as well as the main problem in Solving for M? What inspired Mr. Vann’s character?
JS: Mr. Vann was definitely inspired by some of the Math teachers I had as a student. Although it was my high school Chemistry teacher who was left-handed and could erase the board and write on it at the same time. One reader, however, asked me why— in a book full of strong girls and strong women — why wasn’t Mr. Vann … Ms. Vann? This question actually took me aback. The truth is, it never even occurred to me. In my imagination, Mr. Vann was always a man, probably because most of my own math teachers were. (Cue my high school trigonometry teacher reminding us, in true Mr. Vann fashion, that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and to “never, ever touch your asymptotes.”) But I hope that Mika and her friends, Chelsea and Dee Dee, will find multiple math role models of all genders and backgrounds in their world, and that they themselves will grow up to be those role models for others. As one of Dee Dee’s T-shirts says: This is what a scientist looks like.
RR: Solving for M involves many topics which are more difficult to talk about. What were the challenges of writing this/how did you tackle writing about them?
JS: I am a quiet person, always have been. I often find writing about things easier and more accessible that talking about them, so maybe that is part of the reason I chose to explore this topic in a novel. But I think a story about such a serious theme can be a difficult line to walk. Some of my favorite reactions have been from readers who told me how much they laughed (as well as cried) while reading Solving for M. I also have had to assure more than one reader halfway through the book to "keep on going." It was important for me that the book end on a hopeful note. That while things might not go 100% "back to normal" they would come to a "new normal." (Sound familiar?)
RR: What books inspired you when you were growing up?
JS: Some of my favorite books growing up were The Westing Game (by Ellen Raskin) and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (by E.L. Konigsburg). Both of these are mysteries or puzzles, and I am very much a puzzle-person, crosswords, jigsaws, word puzzles, brain teasers. I am drawn to things that help us construct meaning and make sense of the world. Like math. When everything else seems, as Mika calls it, a big mixed-up mess, math can provide us some rules and truths. Books, of course, also help us make sense of the world. One title that has helped me greatly as a writer, especially moving from picture books to novels, is Just Write by Walter Dean Myers.