The Friendship of Geometry in Shelley Pearsall’s “All of the Above”

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joperry110x155BY JO PERRY

The return to school in September is always bittersweet for kids and parents, especially when students are beginning middle school.  Shelley Pearsall’s ALA award-winning novel, All of the Above will inspire even daunted and overwhelmed middle schoolers:  It tells (with the addition of mouth-watering barbecue recipes) the suspenseful story of a group of seventh graders who attempt to build the world’s largest tetrahedron. 

 Seventh grade math teacher Mr. Collins explains that tetrahedrons are pyramids with triangular bases that can be connected to make larger pyramids, and tells his class that a group of California students has already constructed a seven-foot tall tetrahedron made of 4,096 small tetrahedrons. Then Mr. Collins challenges his students to build an even bigger tetrahedron that will break the world record.

All of the Above250Four students, each with difficult personal problems, form the tetrahedron team: James, whose brother hangs out with a dangerous crowd; Marcel, whose father wants him to work at his barbecue restaurant after school instead of spending time on the math project; Sharice, whose foster parent  is neglecting her; and quiet Rhondell, who hopes to someday attend college.

Day after day, month after month, the students fold and join together thousands of paper triangles in a rainbow patter of James’s design. The disconnected students become proud friends as the colorful pyramid slowly rises higher and higher. Their world record-breaking structure is almost complete when someone destroys their giant tetrahedron and scatters its thousands of pieces on the floor. Mr. Collins and the stunned students wonder if they have the determination to start over.

Pearsall based her book on real Cleveland, Ohio middle-schoolers, who in 2002, worked after school and through the summer to construct the 16, 384 paper triangles necessary to complete their model. (You can see their rainbow tetrahedron at Shelley Pearsall’s website http://www.shelleypearsall.com/picAlbumAll1.htm ).  In an interview, Pearsall  explains how their work inspired her novel,

Picture a run-down urban school, a gloomy gray November morning…  

During my visit, the school’s principal kept talking about his school’s record-breaking tetrahedron project. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what he meant–what in the world was a “tetrahedron?” But when I had a free moment, he took me to one of the math classrooms to show me. I can still remember the jaw-dropping sight when he opened the door: the entire room was filled with giant rainbow-colored pyramids. They were suspended from the lights and lined up along the windowsills and bookshelves. It was a magical, almost gravity-defying sight.*

 All of the Above is a fine book for you to share with your kids this fall.   The students’ voices are real and compelling, the math is fascinating, and the recipes invite you to test them in your kitchen. But what’s best is that it reminds us that teachers can inspire us, friends can give us courage, and that the stories kids tell in their own voices are powerful and important.  

 You can help your kids build their own tetrahedron after visiting:  http://www.public.asu.edu/~starlite/sierpinskibuild.html

 *http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2006/11/author-interview-shelley-pearsall-on.html

Jo Perry has a Ph.D. in English, taught literature and writing, and worked as a college administrator and as a television writer and producer. She is a reviewer for BookBrowse.com and is an ongoing contributor to kidsLA Magazine for which she writes about the city, children’s books, and conducts interviews. For two years she wrote the Kids’ Book Club column for the L.A. Times’ Kids’ Reading Room page.

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Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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