Monday, September 16, 2013

Math and Children's Literature: My Favorite Mathy Picture Books

I love kids' books and I love math. So I've gathered together quite a collection. My son, who has gone to free schools where he isn't required to do math lessons, has probably gotten more math out of reading these books than he has from any formal math lessons.

His favorites are probably a few from the I Love Math series, published back in the early 90's. Although they are out of print, inexpensive copies of most of them are available online. My son and I especially enjoy the stories (in every volume, I believe) about Professor Guesser, a cat detective who solves mysteries using mathematical reasoning. She's featured in the title story of The Case of the Missing Zebra Stripes: Zoo Math. Some of the zebras are missing their stripes, and Professor Guesser figures out what's really going on. These twelve books feel like math magazines, even though they're hardcover, because they have so many different sorts of content - they're full of stories, games, mazes, riddles, and lots of math.  (I think this series is good for ages 4 to 12. On all of my age ranges, I have just used my own judgment.)

Here are the other picture books you'll find on my Math Books page (tab above):

The Opposites, by Monique Felix (ages 2 to 6)
One of the earliest math skills, more basic perhaps than counting, is noticing attributes. This book has no words, and yet it tells dozens of stories, each about opposites. Noticing the one attribute that shows opposites in the detail-filled pictures is a math game your child will want to play again and again.

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. And 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, 4 plus 3, 3 plus 4, and so on.) It would be great to have a book like this for each number, showing all the number pairs that make it. 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, along with lots of furniture and other small items. 
Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar will appeal to older readers. There is one island with two counties, which have 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... You may also enjoy Anno's Math Games. Anno has written over 40 books, most available in English.

Two of Everything, by Lily Toy Hong (ages 3 to 7)
A poor old farming couple in China find a mysterious pot. When a hairpin drops in, they scoop two out.The math isn't discussed in the story, but it's pretty easy to add your own thoughts to this delightful tale of doubling.

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. My favorite used to be 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. One of the delights of this book is the little icons showing who’s talking. Those would help kids to create a delightful impromptu play.

One Grain of Rice, by Demi (ages 5 to 12)
The greedy raja is gently outsmarted by a wise village girl named Rani. This is a very sweet take on the story of grains of rice put on a chessboard. (One grain on the first square, two on the next, then 4, 8, 16, …, until the board is filled. How much rice is that, anyway?)

 The Cat in Numberland, by Ivar Ekeland (ages 5 to adult)
The story starts when Zero knocks on the door of the Hotel Infinity. He’d like a room, but they’re all full (with the number One in Room One, and so on). Turns out that’s no problem. The cat who lives in the lobby gets confused - if the hotel is full, how can the numbers make room for zero just by all moving up one room? Things get worse when the fractions come to visit. This story is charming enough to entertain young children, and deep enough to intrigue anyone. Are you ready to learn about infinity with your 5 year-old?

You Can Count on Monsters, by Richard Evan Schwartz (any age)

Each number from 1 to 100 is a monster, and each one gets its picture on its own page. All of the numbers (except poor 1) are made up from their prime parts. The pictures are colorful, full of intriguing detail, and amusing. The pages in the front and back that explain prime factorization are unassuming, waiting for the reader to decide it’s time to find out more. This and Powers of Ten would both make great coffee table books, to peruse over and over.

Go to my Math Books page for reviews of chapter books for older kids (and books suitable for adults). There are lots of other good mathy kids' books, but these are my favorites.

I also love the idea of creating math lessons from good children's literature even when it wasn't intended for the purpose, but I've never done that myself. (I did find a good math lesson for my adult calculus students in the book Holes, by Louis Sachar.) Julie Brennan does wonders with this genre. Here's an excerpt from one of her chapters in my soon-to-be-published book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers:
I recall my daughter, Hannah*, running across the old question, “How do you split two things evenly among three people?” She has two very memorable experiences to draw on. One is a PBS Cyberchase episode she watched when she was five or six, where the kids had to split two apples exactly evenly among the heads of the three-headed dog or they were in trouble. She never forgot that each apple was split into thirds, and each dog got two thirds. Second, when she was around seven or eight, we were reading a Laura Ingalls Wilder book aloud, and we ran into the story of Laura and Mary getting two cookies from someone. On the way home, they agonized over wanting to eat the cookies themselves, but knowing they needed to share with their sister Carrie, and not knowing how to evenly divide the cookies. In the end, they erred on the side of caution, split one cookie between themselves, and gave the other whole cookie to Carrie. My daughters found it so funny that they didn’t think to divide the cookies up into thirds! Between these anchors, this idea of dividing and sharing proportionately is very real, and it gives a real sense of what 2/3 can be - two wholes divided three ways.

However you do it, I hope you'll enjoy finding math in great children's books!
[This post was written to share in the Math Monday Blog Hop. Thanks, Cindy.]

* pseudonym


  1. Great post...and list! Thanks for adding it to the blog hop!

  2. You, or teachers who follow you may also be interested in the work of my Lesley University colleagues at:

  3. Terrific list, Sue! I always love your lists :)

    1. (Thanks for the comment, Butterfly. It got stuck in blogger somehow.)

  4. I didn't see anything math-related there. Did I miss it? Perhaps the connection is simply that there are good books to learn from, whatever you're learning. Hmm, I'm thinking about my disdain for textbooks right now...


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