Friday, June 26, 2009

A Dozen Delectable Math Books

Reading about math was not like this when I was young.

Here are my most favorite books - all yummy!

... from board books to adult stories, from number pairs to infinity and surreal numbers. (I've just guessed at the ages.)

(Photo by Foxtongue)

Quack and Count, by Keith Baker (ages 2 to 7)
This is a board book, so it's good for the youngest child who will sit and listen to a story. But it stays good because it's so luscious. Great illustrations, fun rhythm and rhyme, cute story, and good mathematics. 7 ducklings are enjoying themselves in every combination. “Slipping, sliding, having fun, 7 ducklings, 6 plus 1.” (And then 5 plus 2, etc.) It would be great to have a book like this for all the number pairs that make 8, and one for 9, etc. If I ever get to teach math for elementary teachers again, I'd love to get my students to make books like this one.

Anno's Counting House, by Mitsumasa Anno (ages 2 to 7)
Everything I've seen by Mitsumasa Anno is delightful. There is so much to see in his books, many of which have no words. In this book, ten people are moving from one house to another. In each two-page spread you can see one more person who's moved from the left house to the right, and lots of furniture and other small items. In Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar, there is one island with two counties, with three mountains each, ..., until we get to ten jars within each box - a lovely, very visual representation of factorials. Anno's Magic Seeds does have words, and tells a fascinating story, of a plant whose seed, when baked, will keep you from being hungry for a full year. The plant grows two seeds in a year, and one needs to be used to grow a new plant... He's written over 40 books, most available in English.

How Hungry Are You?, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen (ages 3 to 12)
There are lots of great of great books on sharing equally. Until recent, my favorite was The Doorbell Rang, by Pat Hutchins, but this one is even more delightful. The picnic starts with just two friends, rabbit is bringing 12 sandwiches and frog is bringing the bug juice. Monkey wants to come, "My mom just made cookies. I could take a dozen." They figure out how much of each goody each friend will get. In the end, there are 13 of them, and the sharing becomes more complicated.

The Cat in Numberland, by Ivar Ekeland (ages 5 to adult)
The cat who lives in the Hotel Infinity gets confused when the hotel is full, and the numbers are all able to move up one room to make room for zero. This story is charming enough to entertain young children, and deep enough to intrigue anyone.

The Number Devil, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (ages 7 to adult)
The Number Devil visits Robert in his dreams, and gets him thinking about the strangest things! Rutabaga numbers and prima donnas (roots and primes) are just the beginning. Anyone who'd like a gentle introduction to lots of interesting math topics will enjoy this one.
Powers of Ten, by Philip and Phylis Morrison (ages 6 to adult)
The first photo shows a couple having a picnic. It's shot from one meter above them. The next is from 10 meters, then 100. After we've traveled to the edge of the universe, we come back to the couple, and zoom in. Each page has one large photo, and explanatory text about what can be seen at that level.

The Man Who Counted, by Malba Tahan (ages 6 to adult)
Written in Brazil, set in the Middle East, these stories follow the adventures of Beremiz, an accomplished mathematical problem-solver. He uses math to settle disputes, solve riddles and mysteries, and entertain his hosts.

Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, by Harold Jacobs (ages 12 to adult)
This one is a textbook, and it's delightful. The first chapter, on inductive and deductive reasoning, uses pool tables to get the student thinking about patterns. Chapters on sequences, graphing, large numbers, symmetry, mathematical curves, counting (permutations and combinations), probability, statistics, and topology round out an introduction to a wide variety of math topics, accessible to beginners.

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, by Apostolos Doxiadis (adult)
Uncle Petros is a recluse. Our hero, his nephew, is trying to discover his secrets. It seems he was close to solving Goldbach's conjecture, that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. There is just a tiny bit of math in this, but lots of (slightly twisted) history of math.

Euclid in the Rainforest, by Joseph Mazur (adult)
Logic, infinity and probability are the topics. Adventures in Venezuela, Greece, and New York furnish the background. Mazur has wide-ranging interests, and skillfully brings the math to life.

Chances Are: Adventures in Probability, by Michael and Ellen Kaplan (adult)
History, philosophy, science, and statistics all come together in this delightful exploration of probability.

Surreal Numbers, by Donald Knuth (adult, with well-developed math skills)
This book requires lots of work, doing the math, and what fun work it can be. Alice and Bill are enjoying their extended vacation on an isolated tropical beach , but are getting a bit bored, when they discover a rock with two 'rules' on it. Conway has invented number through these two rules, and Alice and Bill (and the reader) are sucked in, trying to figure out how it all works. This is higher math.

(An overlapping list is at Nerdy Book Club. A more complete list is on my Math Books page.)


  1. Thanks for put this together Sue. I have to buy for several infants and toddlers - I'll be coming back to this post. :-)

  2. If it's math books you want, Quack and Count and any Anno book without text are great. But if you're not limiting yourself to math, I can send you my bibliography of great kids' books. I was thinking of posting it, one section at a time, on my other blog.

  3. Thank for this list! I've just put a couple of the books on hold at the library to read this summer.

  4. Neat post Sue! I've linked to your blog on my sidebar. Hope that's ok!

  5. Great list! A few of these are new to me and would be fun for my youngest.

  6. @Suji (and anyone else): It's always ok to link. I'm honored. :^)

    I'm glad folks are enjoying this list of books. (I'm still new enough to blogging to be watching the counter, and I've had more visits on this post than on any previous posts.)

  7. Hi, Sue
    Thanks for the list, especially for those for little ones. As I am new to the US educational culture, I especially need this.

  8. Julia, I look forward to hearing what you think of these. I know there are some wonderful Russian stories we'd love to see in translation here.

  9. Hi Sue

    A great carnival, thanks for putting it together.

    One very minor point though...It's Mike from Walking Randomly, not Tim ;)


  10. My friend Chris sent me the following comment by email. I wonder if other people have had similar trouble posting comments... I changed the age as she suggested.

    Chris says: I'm going to get some of those books you mentioned. I even tried to write a comment about powers of 10 but can't remember my google name and password so I gave up. but basically I said you could lower the recommended age for that book to 6 -- E and D (twins) loved it and talk about it often and were inspired to take some pictures from different distances (although not in powers of 10).

  11. The Number Devil is accessible at age 7? OK, I can see that. But there is so much more that an older kid can pull out of it... I'd make them reread it as teenagers...

    (in fact, I do) :P


  12. I just gave it my best guess. Amazon says 10. Maybe I'll change it to 8...

    The youngest kids who like it are definitely just in it for the story, but it gets them thinking about numbers a bit. If they're intrigued enough, maybe they'll pick it up on their own later.

    I think every book on this list can be read lots of times.

  13. Hi Sue,
    I know this is an old post but I came back to it when looking for a math rec for a present. One book (actually a series) I'd add are the Sherlock Holmes books by Colin Bruce. The math specific one I'm thinking of is called <A HREF=">Conned Again Watson</A>. In case you haven't read them, Holmes solves cases using things like Drunkard's Walk and Monte Hall problems. There are some fun ones dealing with quantum theory too. Thanks for the list.

  14. Thanks, Jason!

    I have a vague memory of having read one of these. I used to love Sherlock Holmes, and have enjoyed at least one other take-off on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's masterpiece of a character.

    In one chapter of the book I read, he debunks homeopathy. I understand that homeopathy is weird, and not comprehensible so far by western science, but I also understand there have been plenty of double blind tests of remedies.

    Impeccable logic doesn't get you to the right conclusions if any of your beginning assumptions are invalid. I guess that's a math idea, in a way...

  15. Here are two more great math books worth mentioning that I find get kids really excited about learning. They are both available on Amazon and at the MIM website.
    1) Math in Motion: Origami in the Classroom, Grades K-8
    Here is a website link:
    2) Whale of a Tale, Grades PreK-2
    These books are both interactive. I have engaged whole classes of students and kids reluctant to learn using origami to teach.
    May the fold be with you : )


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