Four struggling African American teens accept their math teacher’s challenge to build the world’s largest tetrahedron in All of the Above
(2006), a contemporary young adult novel by American author Shelley Pearsall. Beginning their Guinness record-breaking project with varying degrees of interest and commitment, the students discover that with perseverance and friendship, dreams can come true. Pearsall based All of the Above
on the true story of a group of inner-city teens at Cleveland’s Alexander Hamilton Middle School, who in 2002, successfully built a “Stage 7” Sierpinski tetrahedron. All of the Above
was listed as an ALA Notable Book and ALSC Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and also made the NY Public Library’s Top 100 list.All of the Above
is narrated in alternating first-person perspectives by the four students, their teacher, and community members. Mr. Collins, the seventh-grade math teacher at Cleveland’s Washington Middle School, loses his cool in front of what he calls “one of my worst classes in twenty years of teaching.” The school is old and crumbling. The neighborhood is run down and impoverished. The kids at Washington don’t seem to care. Mr. Collins is “frustrated with my teaching, my school, my students, myself.” When it is clear that no one is listening to his lesson, he asks the students what would make them care about being in class. The lukewarm answer: a contest. Mr. Collins starts an after-school math club with the goal of breaking a wealthy California school’s record and building a 16,384-piece tetrahedron; the largest ever made.
James Harris III hates school. He has mad art skills and no plans to go to college, so he doesn’t need school. James Harris III is failing math. He and his friends only stay awake in class by betting on which tie Mr. Collins will be wearing. James Harris III lives with his uncle and his domineering older brother, DJ, whose rough friends, Markese, Anthony, and Leon are into drugs and hang around the apartment. When Mr. Collins offers James Harris III a passing grade if he joins the club, James Harris III reluctantly agrees. He’ll attend, but he doesn’t plan to participate.
Smooth, charming, good-looking, “Marcel the Magnificent” is the son of Vietnam veteran and barbeque master, Willy Q. Marcel works at Willy Q’s Barbecue but has bigger plans in life than running a restaurant or being a soldier. Marcel wants to be a comedian or an actor. He joins Mr. Collins’s tetrahedron project but gets angry when his father tells Mr. Collins that Marcel can’t stay late after school because he’s needed at the restaurant. Willy Q believes that Marcel’s primary responsibility is to Willy Q’s.
Sharice decides to join the club so she doesn’t have to spend lonely evenings in the local library or riding the bus while waiting for her “foster non-parent #5” to get home to let Sharice in the house. After the death of her 19-year old mother in a car wreck, and the loss of her loving grandmother to a heart ailment, Sharice has been in and out of foster homes. Kind and talkative, Sharice helps Mr. Collins organize the club and keep it together.
Rhondell feels like a “caterpillar hidden inside a cocoon.” Quiet, smart, and plain, she dreams of being the first person in her family to go to college. Her mom tells Rhondell to face reality: without money, Rhondell will have to be very smart or very lucky to get into college. Rhondell keeps quiet because in the neighborhood, dreaming big “only causes trouble.” Rhondell thinks that working on the tetrahedron and getting into the Guinness Book of World Records
might help her get into college. Rhondell’s Aunt Asia, a hairstylist, is proud of her.
The students glue together hundreds of tetrahedrons—pyramids with a triangular base. James Harris III takes over as “Prez” of the club when Marcel needs to leave early and becomes more invested in the project. He suggests organizing the colors into a rainbow pattern. Sharice sees the group as a “little family.” Rhondell notices more about the personalities of her fellow students. She notes that James Harris III has seemingly made a “metamorphosis,” and she observes that after break, Sharice isn’t looking as kempt or as happy. Sharice is staying at the school later, working on the tetrahedron by herself, because her foster mother is out until midnight. One night, Sharice forgets to lock the classroom door and someone breaks in and destroys the tetrahedron. The team is crushed. They clean up the mess and Rhondell comments that they “fill up four garbage bags of dreams.”
James Harris III is furious. He knows that DJ’s buddies are the vandals. He steals DJ’s cherished basketball jersey as collateral—he’ll give it back only if DJ and his friends don’t mess with the tetrahedron again. The rest of the team is disheartened and doesn’t want to start over, but James Harris III is adamant: they can do it. Willy Q urges Marcel not to let the vandals win. The students rebuild, receiving help from Willy Q and the hairstylists at Aunt Asia’s salon. Worried about Sharice, Rhondell and Aunt Asia check on her and find Sharice locked outside in a blizzard. They take her to their home, and Aunt Asia applies to be her new foster mother.
Shortly before the team completes the tetrahedron, James Harris III learns that his uncle is moving. He will not be able to complete the project. He leaves a note for Mr. Collins and the team, telling them “don’t give up.” The tetrahedron celebration is covered by local media, and as Marcel places the final pyramid in place, he dedicates it to James Harris III. James Harris III is proud to see his name in the paper.
Illustrations by Caldecott Medal-winning artist Javaka Steptoe bring James Harris III’s sketches to life. All of the Above
also includes recipes from Willy Q’s Barbecue, including his Singing the Blues Barbeque Sauce.