Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Reading: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet"

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a book of surprises and contradictions. Although the book jacket describes its main character as a "twelve-year-old genius cartographer," it also has an awful lot to say about the nature of science. After a couple of pages into the first chapter, I thought that perhaps this would be an appropriate book to read to my two boys, as the main character is only a few years older and there are quite a few illustrations in the margins. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that although children would enjoy the storyline of T.S. Spivet, they would certainly struggle with some of the philosophical and metaphysical themes running throughout the novel. My final surprise was how much I enjoyed this book. Its story was engaging, which made it hard to put down. The illustrations were clever and thoughtful. And finally, it encouraged me ponder big questions about life and the universe. 

Part of my enjoyment in reading this book is that I really didn't know what it was about when I first put it on my library reserve list. For that reason, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. However, I will tell you this: T.S. Spivet is an adolescent boy, living in Montana, with an insatiable curiosity and uncanny ability to put his thoughts into pictures. He thinks about all sorts of everyday occurrences in terms of data, models, measurements, and trends, sketching them out in a series of notebooks. This is the source of the illustrations in the book.

An illustration at the opening of a chapter. T.S. ponders migration.

One of the sketches from the beginning of the book. T.S.'s sister is shucking corn while he's collecting data. He gets upset when she finishes the job without him and his data set is incomplete.  This was my first clue that this book was something unexpected and unique.

One of my favorite sketches from the book. T.S. travels to Chicago and ponders the nature of shorts vs. pants.

An event occurs in the book that prompts an independent, cross-country train trip for T.S., during which we get to learn more about his unique perspective of the world, discover some of his family history, and peek more into his relationships with his father, mother, and siblings.

As I said above, it doesn't seem like a book with this storyline would have a lot to do with science, but T.S. thinks about everything in life through the lens of science. He observes things that others might ignore, asks probing questions, collects data and looks for patterns to form hypotheses. We get to learn more about his grandmother, who was a geologist in the early 1900's, and the struggles she experienced as a female scientist. T.S.'s mother is an entomologist, which also has an impact on the development of T.S. as a character.

T.S. is supposed to be a child genius in this book, but I originally had a hard time trying to maintain that image of him as a 12-year-old in my mind, finding myself constantly challenged by his thinking and creativity. But as I saw the themes of the book play out, I realized that this story would have been impossible if T.S. was an adult. Seeing the world through a child's eyes is a completely different experience compared to an adult's perception. The magic and mystery of the book are possible only because the main character is a child.

As educators, we need to remember the valuable perspective students bring to our own learning, simply because they are so new to the world. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet reminds us to cherish children and their perpetual wonder.

*All photos were taken by the blog author, Amanda Meyer.

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