There are people who hear the world. There are people who see the world as it would look if it were painted. There are people who see letters and numbers, as colors (this is called grapheme or color synesthesia). And there are people who make sense of the world through math and patterns. Whether or not you are yourself one of these people, reading about ways and people who filter the world through a different lens teaches us all something, and gives us new ways to explore and understand the world. All of these books feature math in different ways – as puzzles, as metaphors, of ways of relating, or ways of seeing life and its problems or the world in general. You’ll start to see math everywhere – and even like it!
Read-alouds for the Family
Remember the stories in The Arabian Nights? Well, imagine a thousand and one nights of these tales–with the twist that each one is a fascinating mathematical puzzle. It recounts the life of a humble, but wise sheep herder in ancient Arabia who through the power and beauty of mathematics and logic lives the greatest adventures. Even those who are “math timid,” can’t help but see the wonder and magic of mathematical thinking. Perfect for a family read-aloud, as it is one novel–but filled with a rich collection of stories. Young children to adults are captivated by the stories in this book, originally written in Portuguese in 1949.
Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese, illustrated by John O’Brien
While this is definitely a childrens book, with simple text and beautiful full illustrations, it is a great read aloud everyone – regardless of the age of the youngest member of the family! When we discovered this book at the library (it was one of the books that inspired this flight, we all loved it so much) everyone in the family laid claim to it at some point – from 4-year-olds to grandparents. Telling the story of Leonardo Fibonacci, it illustrates so many things we love about math, discovery, and the amazing way children (and adults who continue to explore like children) think. Called a Blockhead by his teacher for always daydreaming, Leonardo continued to look at the world in his own way – discovering numbers and repetition and sequences everywhere. This is the clearest and most interesting description of the Fibonacci sequence we’ve seen, and will have everyone in the family understanding and looking at the world in a slightly different way.
Toddler and Preschool
Grandfather Counts by Andrea Cheng
Counting books are a natural starting point for math ideas with toddlers, and this one is a favorite. Counting in Chinese becomes the bridge between Helen and her Chinese grandfather Gong Gong as they watch trains and count the cars in both languages. Besides numbers, Helen and Gong Gong learn language, culture, stories, and form a special bond, teaching each other in this powerful intergenerational story with math at its heart.
Minnie’s Diner: A Multiplying Menu by Dayle Ann Dodds
A fun look at another math topic – exponentials. When Papa McFay says no food till the work is done, one by one his boys are tempted away from their chores by the delicious smells coming from Minnie’s Diner. Each son in twice the size of the last, and proceeds to order twice as much food as the previous brother. It’s fun for kids (and a cool visual reminder for adults) to see how fast things add up when you double them, as one cherry pie quickly becomes a teetering pile of 32 pies. Papa McFay comes in last, and judging by the gigantic shadow he casts, he should have no problem eating a double order, right? In any case, the book ends with a wiped out and cleaned out Minnie hanging a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign!
How about an engaging story to introduce the concept of geometry? Of course, Ancient Egypt is the perfect setting for most everything to us, but you’ve got to admit, an adventure where you need to escape from a hidden pyramid is pretty enticing for exploring shapes. The twin brothers in the Zills family get stuck inside a pyramid with their dog and must use math to figure out a way to get out. The illustrations are well-done and the story line is engaging. It’s always fun for the youngest readers to be in on the fun of seeking out hidden shapes in each picture. Recommended for math fun at home–and the primary grades.
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith
When Mrs. Fibonacci (!) tells her class that they can “think of almost everything as a math problem,” a girl in the class is instantly afflicted with a “math curse” where that’s exactly what happens… With the silliness and cleverness that we all have come to expect from Scieszka and Smith, this book delights as it really does make you think about how many times and in how many ways we reference numbers every day. The book is generally aimed at early readers, but it’s really a book that toddlers enjoy having read to them (for the silly words and big colorful illustrations) and older kids enjoy reading to themselves.
Tweens and Teens
Fractals, Googols, and other Mathematical Tales by Theoni Pappas
There are plenty of fascinating math topics in this book to keep readers intrigued–magic squares, tangrams, the abacus-really, something for everyone. We like the short story format, which starts with a simple math story, followed by a more in-depth discussion. Because it’s a book you can dip into, it’s terrific for meeting the needs of different kids–and even the same kids as they have different interests to connect to math. There’s quite a bit of humor, even in the most serious of concepts.
The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
For many of us, dreaming of math and numbers would be more of a nightmare… and so it begins for Robert, who is visited in his dreams by the Number Devil. But soon he is searching for the Number Devil as soon as he falls asleep, as the devil explains how fascinating numbers are, and how they relate. Prime numbers become
“prima donnas” and a factoral is called a “vroom!” and the patterns in math will simultaneously open your eyes and make your head spin, as they do for Robert. The book is told as a series of nights of sleep, with visits from the Number Devil, who explains increasingly difficult concepts. The first few dreams are easy and fun for everyone, and by the end of the book it takes a few reads for any non-mathematicians to catch the drift, but this book is worth owning and referring to for kids – and parents who are a few years removed from their own math classes and want a fun way to brush up!
Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra by Wendy Lichtman
This series (2 books, so far) stars Tess, a math whiz, who definitely sees the world through a math lens – and when she lets us in on that way of seeing the world, it seems like a pretty helpful way of sorting through some serious teen issues. Whether it’s the symbols she creates to refer to her friends in her notebook (|m| is her symbol for her friend Miranda, because that is the symbol for absolute value, which turns every number to a positive number, and Miranda is never negative) or the way she looks at the popularity of the kids at school (the cute athlete Richard, is in her opinion, of more value than her at the beginning of the book, or R > T) or how their relative values change (when Richard expects her to look the other way when he is cheating, she revises her estimate to at least T ≥ R…), Tess has a math equation for everything. Which is lucky, because she needs lots of tools for putting things in perspective: there is drama at school with cheating and friendships, and drama at home, where she thinks her mother may have knowledge about a murder. A fun and easy read of a book, which may just leave you looking for ways to graph all the non-logical areas of your life…
Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices by Theoni Pappas
Poems in two voices are written so that two readers read the piece at the same time–some lines are exactly the same and the two voices chime in together; some lines speak to different truths and alternate. They beg to be performed and discussed, yet also work as individual readings imaging the two different voices. These poems are a wonderful way to bring math concepts–and math attitudes–into the classroom as jumping off points for ideas and discussions. We love the notion of exploring concepts like the mobius strip, tesselations, imaginary numbers, variables, radicals, and other mathematical ideas into a poetic dialogue. Start with “We are Numbers” and go from there!
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
A housekeeper and her 10-year-old son become a kind of surrogate family for “the Professor,” a brilliant mathematician. The Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The characters themselves have no names, except for the boy, who the Professor calls “Root,” because the shape of his hair reminds the Professor of the square root symbol. In a very gentle writing voice, the author allows readers to observe the way the characters come together–often around mathematical theories that bring a different kind of clarity to their 80 minute bursts of shared memories. An unusual and engrossing tale.
Imaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Amazing Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems and Musings edited by William Frucht
From Lewis Carroll to Italo Calvino and Philip K. Dick to Wislawa Szymborska, this anthology is a fabulous re-introduction to math for adults who haven’t thought of the subject beyond balancing checkbooks since taking the SATs. Through novels, poems and short stories, these authors of fantasy, science fiction, literature and more make you realize that math is art, science, poetry, love, beauty and music, and all of those things contain elements of math. There is something here for everyone, and if you find yourself skipping Carroll’s mathematical musings on the shape of a garden, you may be drawn in by the logic puzzles posed in Raymond Smullyan’s short story. Keep reading, dig deeper, and read some of the poems aloud to a friend (or child). Infinity, parallels, tangents and relativity are all fodder for both creative writing (and thinking) and math, and it’s all food for thought in this well-edited collection.