Review: One + One = Blue by MJ Auch


April 22, 2013 by Heidi

One + One = Blue by MJ AuchTitle: One + One = Blue [Goodreads]
Author: MJ Auch [Website]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Middle Grade; Contemporary
Published: April 30th, 2013 by Henry Holt
Format: Hardcover; 272 pages
Source: ARC from publisher

Twelve year-old Basil knows he’s special—he’s been associating numbers with colors since he was a kid. His gift (or curse) has turned him into somewhat of a loner, but his world begins to change when he meets Tenzie, the new girl in school who has similar freakisms. She, too, has synesthesia (a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another). At first, Basil is somewhat annoyed with Tenzie’s pushiness, but after Basil’s estranged mother returns, his life is turned upside down . . . and Tenzie may be the only person to help him put it back together again.

Once again, MJ Auch has written a thoughtful coming-of-age novel that explores friendship, family, and fitting in.

One + One = Blue was, for me, one of those unassuming titles that just happened to creep into my life at the perfect time.  When I received it, I thought the cover and premise were cute, and that it’d be one of those nice little contemporary middle grade stories about friendship and bonding over your similar differences from the larger group.  I’d probably think it was good, but it probably wouldn’t stick with me for any length of time because, really, it’s just another contemporary middle grade.  But then, the day I happened to sit down to read One + One = Blue also happened to be a day that I was inwardly raging about bad parents who were a drain on their children’s lives, and several hours later I looked up having turned the last page, finding MJ Auch’s latest to be one of the most cathartic reading experiences I’d had in some time.

A blurb that is somewhat misleading, One + One = Blue appears to be a novel about children with synesthesia and the bond of friendship that is formed when you realize that someone shares your “freakism”.  For me, it was hardly about friendship at all–it was more a book about family dynamics, and realizing that where one belongs does not always follow the most traditional sense of family.  The kids involved, Basil and Tenzie, just happen to have synesthesia, a neurological condition in which senses get crossed resulting in a person’s ability to experience sounds in relation to movement, taste in relation to texture, or, in this case, color in relation to numbers.  Synesthesia creates a bond between the two characters, a gift MJ Auch shares herself, highlighting a rare but fascinating and varied condition in a way that adds to the story but is recognizably not the story itself.

Basil is a deeply introverted young man whose best and only friend is his grandmother who has raised him since his mother abandoned him to seek success in Hollywood years previously.  When the new girl at school, Tenzie, barges her way into his life unasked and uninvited, Basil is torn between the joy of having a friend, and the strings that come with it.  To me, Tenzie was never really a good friend to Basil.  Raised as an only child in a family that is constantly moving, Tenzie feels as neglected and ignored at home as Basil does outside of his, and as a result she latches on to Basil and his home life firmly.  She is a character so concerned with her own problems, that she shows little understanding or regard for Basil’s, pushing him into situations from her own perspective without considering his.

It is this tendency  perhaps, that forges a bond between Tenzie and Basil’s mother, Carly, when Carly returns to Basil and her mother’s home after years of not making it in Hollywood.  Carly too, sees little beyond her own needs and desires, seeing her son as selfish for wanting her to have been part of his life all of these years past.

One + One = Blue was so cathartic for me because it showed the reality that sometimes people don’t grow and change.  A lot of the time, things aren’t all going to be okay simply because two people share a bond of genetics, and that there needs to be more there.  In my mind, children should come first in every parent’s life, no matter how having that child may set back personal goals you had once set for yourself.  In a case such as Carly’s where she is too selfish to be a competent, stable, and loving parent, I am so grateful to see that Basil had a loving home in his grandmother.  The bond that Tenzie felt for Carly was heartbreaking for me, as it reflected how even in the most traditional homes children can feel neglect, and the confusion that can arise between attention and affection.

I don’t think that One + One = Blue is a book that will speak to all readers, but it will speak greatly to a particular audience.  This is an excellent book to put into the hands of any kid being raised in a non-traditional situation–the kids who are justifiably angry over their parents’ behavior.  One + One = Blue helps to show that it is productive at times to accept a behavior and move on without dwelling or holding out hope for change.  Alternatively, that it can be productive to begin a conversation about why a child is having difficulties at school or at home.  It meant a lot to me on the day that I picked it up, and I know it will mean a lot to many young men and women who do the same.

was very happy that MJ Auch included her gift of synesthesia in this novel through Basil and Tenzie.  Here’s a short glimpse into Basil’s mind:

Listening to Tenzie try to spell her name, I realized for the first time that there was a “ten” in it, which was ridiculous, because ten is white/white, and white is quiet.  It didn’t fit her at all.  Not only did Tenzie wear a lot of loud colors, but her personality was like the brass section of a band.  White would be somebody timid like Miss Chelmski, the assistant in the guidance office, who wrote hall passes when you were late for class.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I wasn’t familiar with MJ Auch’s work before now, but looking at the three books in her backlog I am loving that she seems to focus on young male protagonists and various ideas of home, family, and acceptance.

Get a second opinion:
Bibliophilic Monologues – “The book is about choosing your own family and being okay with being different.”


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  1. Reynje says:

    This sounds really good.. “A lot of the time, things aren’t all going to be okay simply because two people share a bond of genetics, and that there needs to be more there.” — Yes to this, I wish I could find more books that dealt with this particular truth. I don’t think many books tackle it well, if at all. But this sounds really well handled..

    • Heidi says:

      Reynje, it IS really well handled. When Basil’s mother came back into his life, I groaned because I was convinced it was going to be all about him forgiving her and them becoming a real mother and son, but it wasn’t that at all.

  2. I really love the idea behind this book and how profoundly it affected you, but as you said, I don’t think this is a book for all readers – or me, for that matter. I will probably read and appreciate it, but not LOVE it, unfortunately. I do truly love this review, though. I can feel your genuine passion and love for this novel, which makes me want to read it only because you liked it so much, so maybe I need to throw it on my shelves and read it a few years down the line. We’ll see.

    • Heidi says:

      Oh thank you, Keertana! I totally understand if this is one that wouldn’t be for you, like I said, I DON’T think every reader who picks it up will really connect with it, but I love that I did so unexpectedly. Sometimes those are the best books!

  3. Oh wow, this book sounds brilliant. I love, love, LOVE middle grade books. Don’t you think that, on the whole, they handle Serious Issues (note the capital) far better than a lot of YA books?

    Of course there are exceptions but I find them so much more realistic and far less dramatic.

    Also, I love books that you just pick up and they work their way into your heart. They’re my favourite.

    Also x2 – That cover! Gorgeous!

    • Heidi says:

      YES! Jo, I completely agree that MG books handle issues better than YA books–at least in a way I personally understand/identify with better on the whole. I love unexpected reads as well, which is why this one will stick with me for much longer than expected. And the cover? Gorgeous!

  4. Super reviewI love that this is unlike any book I’ve read.

  5. I haven’t come across this one before, but I really like the sound of it. I agree with you about parents – children should come first, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. I think I fall into the right audience for this… I’m definitely curious about it now, so thank you for the review, Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      Ooh, I hope you do check this one out, Sam! It was a very pleasant read for me, in ways that I didn’t expect–not cliche at all.

  6. Also, I can’t wait to see what you think about Criminal. It sounds pretty good!

    • Heidi says:

      Oh, it is, Sam! I finished it a couple of days ago. It’s really emotionally intense, in a very different way than I’d expected. My review for it’ll be up closer to the release date!

  7. Alexa Y. says:

    This book sounds very unique in terms of middle grade contemporary novels, at least to me. I don’t know that I’ve read very many that focus on things like this, or include that condition. Since I do like a good novel about family and relationships and non-traditional examples of both, I think I might have to take the time to check this one out.

    • Heidi says:

      It was very unique, but I really appreciated it–for some reason ‘issue’ novels work better for me in MG than in YA, and this one was excellent.

  8. Nafiza says:

    I think that this book was also refreshing for me because it didn’t try to excuse, justify or even interpret the bad parents. They were just parents and while Tenzie sees her parents more after the incident, the relationship between them remains far from ideal. That felt refreshing to me. Nothing becomes magically better.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! I completely agree Nafiza, I loved that this didn’t pretend like everything was going to be magically okay, but that didn’t make things horrible either, ya know?

  9. VeganYANerds says:

    The cover of this caught my eye right away, and I love that the title hints at the characteristics of the MC.

    You’re so right about parents needing to put kids first, I don’t think enough people realise this before they go ahead and have kids and then they ruin their child’s life – sad :/

    • Heidi says:

      Isn’t the cover wonderful? It’s what caught my eye initially as well. It IS sad when parents don’t put their kids first, but I really loved that this book recognized that some never will, and that sometimes growing up in non-traditional households can be better for those kids.

  10. […] I enjoyed One + One = Blue by MJ Auch so much, Macmillan was wonderful enough to send me her backlog to check out, including One-Handed […]

  11. You are so awesome – I’ve never heard of this, but now I’m looking forward to reading it one of these days!

    I am SO drawn to stories of different family dynamics. It is how I pick a great many of the books I read and the majority of TV shows I watch. This definitely sounds right up my alley.

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.