Ranbir Folding Nebraska by Mona R. Semerau book review
book review

Book Review: Ranbir: Folding Nebraska

RANBIR: FOLDING NEBRASKA by Mona R. Semerau is a quirky story about two kids feeding their imaginations with mathematics. Check out what Warren Maxwell has to say in his book review of this indie middle grade novel.

Ranbir: Folding Nebraska

by Mona R. Semerau

Genre: Middle Grade / Contemporary

ISBN: 9781639888788

Print Length: 80 pages

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Reviewed by Warren Maxwell

A quirky story about two kids feeding their imaginations with mathematics

Seven year-olds Buck and Ranbir are stuck wearing masks and are unable to socialize normally with their school friends. On top of that, they’re being taught lessons about politics that they can’t comprehend. 

When both of them give mathematically correct, yet culturally incorrect answers to the same question, a friendship is born. This story follows the two of them as they romp through the world of decimals, exponential growth, and logarithms.

“‘While you were daydreaming you were in solitary confinement. Oh, the mind is a wonderful thing, so delightfully devious. I’m so glad you didn’t let the zombies eat your brain.’”

After meeting rebellious, seven year-old math whizz Ranbir during recess, Buck discovers that math offers an infinite number of games that can help him pass the time while stuck in class listening to his teacher “Ms. Drone-a-lot.” First Ranbir dares Buck to fold a sheet of paper in half fifty times which he obligingly does—folding a state-of-Nebraska-sized sheet of paper in his mind until its thickness reaches all the way to outer space. Soon they develop a routine with Ranbir teaching Buck different elements of mathematics through games, tools, and fun techniques. Clear direction and illustrations make Ranbir’s games easy to recreate and play alongside the book!

“Oh!” His voice kind of looped low to high with the accent and everything. I would have laughed but he looked a little desperate. “It is impossible time. I must pay my debt to society, you see, for justice, equity, being fair, all that. I am tasked with moving all the numbers from the left side of the decimal point to the right side to make everything equal. And these poor sahibs have no clue that cannot be done!” 

Interspersing the mathematic games is an ongoing conflict between Buck and Ranbir and their teachers over ideas about equity and injustice. Both young students refuse to internalize lessons on racism, inequality, and 1619 that are being taught in the classrooms. Buck daydreams a world in which he is alternately sentenced to solitary confinement for his nonconformity or racing across the Nebraska landscape in a pickup truck with his dog Zippo, meeting colorful bargemen and behaving like an adult. These freewheeling imaginative adventures are not always fully articulated or explained, but they nevertheless enliven the story and give a welcome context for some for some of its more complex mathematic techniques.

“’In my day if you was ‘intellec-shul’ or learn-ed, you wanted folks to see you smoking a pipe, because it made you look thoughtful and contemplative, like you had big deep thoughts in your head, kind of wizardy and mysterious. I just wanted to impress you.’”

The moments when Buck applies his newfound mathematical prowess, putting it to use in the real world, are exhilarating. Combined with the casual dialogue and authentic demeanor of an ordinary seven year-old discovering the joys of math for the first time, Buck is both inspirational and relatable—daring young readers to engage in their own math games. While some of the mathematics detailed in the story is too advanced for a young reader, there are a wealth of simpler ideas and games that will be entertaining. Less successful are the various attempts to imbed the story with political ideas that are overly mature and awkwardly integrated into the universe of a seven year-old’s daydreams. In particular, there’s some jarring language referring to transgenderism and racial characteristics early in the book that is out of character for the young narrator and feels out of place. Fortunately, this language doesn’t appear throughout story and politics play only a minor role—framing the narrative rather being imbedded at the heart of it.

With charismatic guides leading the way, Ranbir is a journey that reveals all the ways math can change how you see the world around you.

Thank you for reading Warren Maxwell’s book review of Ranbir: Folding Nebraska by Mona R. Semerau! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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