Count on Me – Miguel Tanco, Tundra Books, 2019
Miguel Tanco’s Count on Me isn’t just one more welcome affirmation that girls can love math, although it does convince readers of that premise. This gentle and exquisitely illustrated story describes one child’s path towards recognizing what she likes to do best. Her route may have fewer detours than many others’, because it is so obvious to her that numbers, patterns, equations, and geometric forms are the heart of her daily life. In addition (no pun intended!), our heroine has easy-going parents, immersed in their own pursuits, and thoroughly comfortable with allowing their daughter to find her own. Every page of the book reinforces the importance of loving what you do and doing what you love, especially when nothing can compete with the beautiful fractals and polygons surrounding you.
Count on Me is set in an unspecified city: probably European, but it could as well be elsewhere. We know there are museums, because the girl and her family are enjoying the view of a large canvas, maybe a Mondrian. The dad is an artist, and his creative messiness contrasts with his daughter’s analytical approach to board games, playground climbing structures, and even the array of food items set out on their dinner table.
Mom is an entomologist; as the girl happily watches her peering at insects through her microscope, we can see the approval on her face for this absorption in detail, but the girl’s own interests are somewhat more abstract. Her brother’s tuba playing also brings a smile to her face, and she is happy to try different activities at school to test her convictions. Playing Hamlet, being a chef, and attempting ballet are all worthy endeavors; she needs to be sure they are not for her.
“We live in a world of shapes and I like to play with them,” the girl realizes; Tanco explains to kids that self-knowledge is essential; without it, we might wind up as bad tuba players or unfulfilled scientists. Even though her parents are wonderful, the book concedes that the outside world might find one’s passion to be a little weird. When the girl stops at the top of the slide to make some notes because “It’s fun for me to find the perfect curve,” some of her friends stuck on the ladder are scowling in annoyance. Yet she is undeterred: “I know that my passion can be hard to understand. But there are infinite ways to see the world.”
One way to see the world is in Miguel Tanco’s delicately detailed and allusive drawings, many in black and grey with striking elements of color. I’m looking at the two page spread of the city, the little girl and a companion walking down a tree-lined path. The buildings in the background are a visual homage to Ludwig Bemelmans’s old house in Paris, where Madeline lived! (I don’t know if Tanco intentionally included this visual homage, but I almost expected to see Madeline herself testing Miss Clavel’s patience.) The interior of the family’s house includes references to different eras: the mid-century intersecting circles on the floor of Mom’s lab, and the radio, straight out of the nineteen-forties, sitting on a bookshelf.
One two page spread manages to capture with both accuracy and humor the mind of a child who feels different. Each student in the girl’s art class sits in front of an easel. Some are actively at work, while others hold their brushes and expectantly look to the teacher for approval. We see whimsical animals, a portrait, and one student has drawn a tiny butterfly on an otherwise empty canvas. (She might be a good friend for our young mathematician.) The teacher, in an elegant plaid dress and matching beret, points at the heroine’s project, every inch of which is covered with equations, graphs, and polygons. What is she saying? The girl smiles broadly, maybe nervously. The teacher looks calm. Readers may wonder about whether the conversation is going to induce self-doubt, or strengthen the girl’s resolve to follow her passion.
By the end of the book, we know that all those hours and days pondering shapes and resolving problems will lead to a very concrete kind of joy. The final section of the book is the girl’s portfolio. Presented as a spiral notebook and proudly labeled “My Math,” it contains line drawings and descriptions of fractals, trajectories, concentric circles, and more. If Count on Me doesn’t convince you to quit running in concentric circles and follow your own trajectory, I don’t know what will.