Math Books for Kids: The Truth is Out There
On Monday I gave two talks at the 2017 NerdCamp conference held in Parma, MI. This would be the second time I spoke at the conference and my talks probably couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. The first was one of those slam dunk panels you hope for. I had the chance of moderating a talk with Erica Perl, Shannon Hale, and Donna Gephart about funny women writing for kids. Attending in the audience were folks like Juana Medina, fellow Funny Girl contributor Kelly DiPucchio, James Kennedy, Dean Hale, debut author/illustrator Shelley Johannes (of the upcoming Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker) and others. It was a nice full room and we all had just the loveliest time.
My other panel was going to have a tougher time of it, though. The topic? Wait, There’s an Award for Math Books? Meet the Mathical Book Prize. And it was going up against speakers like Mr. Schu, Donalyn Miller, and Jack Gantos, for crying out loud. Basically, I figured anyone attending my panel was going to be a hardcore math enthusiast. And sure as shooting I was right. In the end I had seven math teachers and author Helen Frost (which was pretty cool). I handed out free books. I did a song and dance about math. And afterwards it occurred to me that I had actually typed up my notes in a pretty bloggy way. Why not put my thoughts on the matter here for wider consumption?
Here then, are some thoughts on the state of math related children’s books today, with some recommendations of 2017 math books at the end.
STEM. There’s an “M” in there. It isn’t STE, but sometimes it can feel that way when you’re a children’s librarian or a teacher looking for halfway decent books.
Now let’s start with a little good news right from the get-go. The happy thing I want to tell you today is that we are currently in a Golden Age of children’s literature, and I mean that sincerely. I can say this, because our childhood sucked. Maybe not in terms of life, but in terms of books? Dude. Do you even remember the math books when we were all kids. Here I’ll break it down for you.
Behold! The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. A.K.A. The only fun book written for kids about math that they might actually encounter in their day-to-day lives. Not the only one ever made (of course not). But for older readers this was it. Younger readers had it easy with counting books. Maybe even some fun addition books as well. But get over the age of, say, seven and good luck finding much of anything (though see the thoughts on Beast Academy for a recommendation from a chocolate mathematician, if you like).
Now to be fair, this problem isn’t restricted to math. Biographies for kids or pretty much any nonfiction subject was not an easy sell back in the day. Part of this has to do with how books were sold. Prior to the rise of B. Dalton bookstores, children’s book sales were considerably swayed by libraries and independent bookstores. Without a true push, there was no real inclination to stock the shelves with math books. The idea of a “good” math book would have been mildly diverting to the purchasers at this time, but not hugely desirable. Librarians like literature. I don’t mean ALL librarians – but for a lot of them, that is how they come to the job. I have met former math teachers that became librarians but they are rare beasties. Like little chips of diamonds.
When you have an economy run by fiction lovers, the market is going to reflect what they want. And what they want are books that they would have enjoyed as kids. And what they didn’t enjoy as kids was math. Because there were few fun math books. And around and around and around . . .
So then came B. Dalton and the rise of the big box bookstores. You had the public now determining what people wanted to read. That had potential, except what the public wanted to read was, you guessed it, FICTION!
Next comes STEM. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Labor predicted that there will be 1.2 million job openings in STEM related fields by 2018, but there wouldn’t be enough qualified graduates to fill them. Schools had already been focusing on the STEM fields but this was the time when children’s books started following suit. And we have seen amazing books coming out since that. Popular books! Books like Rosie Revere Engineer, a New York Times bestseller. And this is great. I would say that 2017 is the strongest nonfiction year I’ve seen in YEARS . . . in everything but math.
For whatever reason, math still eludes people. I think I’ve figured out why. Math books are some of the hardest books to write. You can make puzzle books and activity books out of them. You can do workbooks with ease. But putting a mathical concept into a literary form is inherently difficult. It’s not that they’re opposites. It’s more that they’re attempting to work different parts of the brain simultaneously. And to do that well you need a really good writer. And really good writers think they don’t like math.
So what is the solution? There actually ARE good math books every year that come out. But finding them is like sifting for gold. Because here’s the crazy thing – Not all math books are created equal. Some of them teach terrible math or are actually incorrect. How this works – Let’s say I’m a trade publisher in NYC. A teacher comes to me with a math book. By some divine miracle I decide to actually publish this book. I may vet out the math to someone who knows their stuff, but that takes time, that takes money, and who am I to question the expert that’s come to me with this book in the first place? I’m a grown adult. This math seems right. But it ain’t.
The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) determined that this was a problem. And to their infinite credit, they decided that books might be one of the answers to getting kids into math. So they paired with the Children’s Book Council, or CBC, to create the Mathical Award for kids. The idea behind the award is simple. It looks at books that tackle math in a variety of different ways. Not just counting or additional and subtraction but puzzle solving, shapes, geometry, algebra, the whole nine yards.
These days the Mathical Book Prize is organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), in partnership with the National Consortium for Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Consortium of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Moreover Mathical continues to partner with First Book, a nonprofit organization which provides books and educational resources to schools and programs serving children in low income communities.
In 2015, over 2,500 copies of the inaugural Mathical award winners were distributed through First Book’s programs
Now a quick rundown on why the heck I was not just pulled to be on this committee once, but I am pulled to be on it every year. Because facing facts, I am clearly the odd duck out. I am precisely the kind of stereotypical literary-lovin’ librarian I talked about earlier. I like fiction, but the advantage of being a librarian is that you are constantly asked to take steps out of your comfort zone.
Now this book may look familiar to you:
A couple years ago Jon Scieszka asked if I’d be interested in participating on the formation of a math award committee. I think he asked me because I’m the only children’s librarian he knows that would say yup yup yup to the formation of ANY committee. It’s not like I’d done much with math in the past. So I came in and was amongst librarians and authors and, most exotic of all, mathematicians. Real mathematicians. People who have a job doing math. I had never encountered these people before. It was amazing. And we talked about the importance of this award, the gap in the marketplace, and how you go about awarding books for math. Do you have categories? Do you have age ranges? Do you award money to the winners? How do you promote those winners?
After a lot of talking, a year or so went by and I pretty much just assumed the project was dead. Which is a pity. The biggest awards for children’s books are the ALA Youth Media Awards. And in the last few years they’ve made strides towards covering a lot more STEM related subject areas. There are two nonfiction awards. There’s the Excellent in Young Adult Nonfiction Award which goes to teen books (and which a friend of mine once said should be endowed immediately because talk about a mouthful of a name!). And there’s the Sibert Medal which is on the younger end of the scale. It is important to note that they are nonfiction awards. Awards that, inevitably, go to science, history, and biographies, almost exclusively.
Number of Sibert Medals That Have Gone to Math-Related Books for Kids: 1. Maybe. In 2001, the first year of this award, the book The Longitude Prize, written by Joan Dash, illustrated by Dusan Petricic was awarded an Honor. Latitude and Longitude are kinda math, right? But seriously, the fact that no award was given to Deborah Heiligman’s The Boy Who Loved Math is one of those award gap travesties I shall rail about on my deathbed (I have a lot of travesties I need to rail about on my proverbial deathbed, by the way, so this one may need to take a number, no pun intended).
Here are the awards you won’t find coming out of ALA for kids. An award for poetry. And award for graphic novels. An award for board books. And an award for math.
Now these awards are inevitably given to the newest books in a given year, and that’s a good thing. But what makes the Mathical Award so good, to my mind, is that it has a new backlist award section each year.
Let me explain. Because eventually I did get the call that the award was going through. So every year I traipse out to New York City to join an ever changing panel of mathematicians and teachers and educators and experts in the field. And right from the start this award acknowledged something that I’ve never really seen an award acknowledge before. Here’s a comparison. I also helped start an award for historical American books for kids with the New York Historical Society. And this was a very standard award. Submissions were made by publishers each year. The books were discussed with historians for accuracy. Kids played a part, which is rare. And then one big award was given each year. Easy peasy.
Mathical’s different because they acknowledge right from the start that they’re not seeing everything that comes out in a given year. Publishers don’t always think to send their books along, or may not even consider them to be math book. For example, there was this fantastic book out last year called Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino. The whole book is about Geometry!! Heck, the whole quest is based on finding a ruler, a compass, and another object that they believe God used to create the world! Is not that crazy? And yet, the publisher never even considered it a “math” book. When they do submit, half the time it’s in the wrong field. A lot of astronomy books get sent to the Mathical committee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read through a book and concluded “There’s no math in here”.
And sometimes you get desperate, particularly when it comes to YA literature. Is code breaking math? How about statistics? Ruby Redfort and The Great Trouble would not have been my first choice on the past lists to win, but you go with what you’ve got.
But the true advantage of this committee is that you’re getting math books that are given the official stamp of approval BY mathematicians. And, in a lovely twist, they let librarians like me on board to say whether or not there are problems from a literary perspective that they should know about. Lovely!
So what I’m going to do with you now is introduce you to some of the newest 2017 books that you’ll want to know about. By God, these publishers better nominate these books this year! Oh, and hey! Have you seen a really killer math book either this year or in the past that hasn’t won a Mathical Award? Go here and nominate some yourself!
A Smattering of 2017 Math Books
Baby Loves Quantum Physics by Ruth Spiro, ill. Irene Chan
I’ve already mentioned this one before but two words: Schrödinger’s kitten. It’s Physics so it’s debatable if you would actually count this as math, but at least it’s on the spectrum.
I Know Numbers! by Taro Gomi
I love this one because it shows the practical application of numbers, above and beyond basic counting, integrated into everyday life. I also had a bit of a thrill because when an attendee of my talk pointed out that the book didn’t look like it originated in America I was able to say she knew this artist’s work already. Everyone recall Everyone Poops? Gomi strikes again!
Counting Colorful Shapes: Art Deco Style by Isabel Hill
Shapes and counting together. I like that the architectural details found in this book could be found anywhere in any town. They are site specific or something you’d find only in NYC.
Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood, ill. Priscilla Burris
Because if you’re going to do a counting book then you pretty well better have a great storytline to go along with it. I love the counting of the MANY relatives, the problem, and the solution.
The Pickwicks’ Picnic: A Counting Adventure by Carol Brendler, ill. Renee Kurilla
Again, a counting book is worth its weight in gold if you can get the story to be interesting. Cute doggies trying to get to a picnic? Check and check!
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani
In terms of math, this counting book may actually be the best. That’s because it’s not just about math but also showing how you can transfer a number of cats into different columns and combinations. Confused about what I mean? Then just watch this adorable book trailer:
Earn It! A Moneybunny Book by Cinders McLeod
Money doesn’t always translate into numbers, but in this case it does. When Bun decides she wants to be rich and famous, the rich part means earning carrots. Lots of graphs are going on here, to calculate carrots earned. Kirkus didn’t like it because it felt that “The joy in hard work, above and beyond the gratification, feels absent” but I’d argue that there’s a distinction between mere gratification of having something and the gratification of earning something.
Grandfather Whisker’s Table by Eun-jeong Jo, ill. Bimba Landmann, edited by Joy Cowley
Lion, King & Coin by Jeong-hee Nam, ill. Lucia Sforza, edited by Joy Cowley
These next two books from Eerdmans aren’t really all that math-ish, but they’re interesting because they highlight how our current economic lending and coinage systems started. So maybe it’s more historical than math-y, but if you’re trying to get at the root of certain economic concepts, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Ants Rule: The Long and Short of It by Bob Barner
I love this! It’s looking at different forms of measurement, with an eye to inches, and with some graphs thrown in there for spice as well. Plus the art is lovely.
And now a little word about Beast Academy.
After returning from my adventures in Parma (sounds like I’ve been jet-setting in Italy, when I put it that way) I had dinner the following night with a friend who also happens to be a chocolate mathematician. Which is to say, he does math for a large chocolate company. We got to talking about my Mathical presentation and math books for kids in general. He then asked if I was familiar with the Beast Academy books. Say what now? Well, apparently there’s this online school called Art of Problem Solving. Their motto? “Is math class too easy for you? You’ve come to the right place!” Not for newbies then, but it’s nice that math loving kids can find a place in this world as well. Naturally they’ve an online bookstore covering a variety of different topics. On the younger end of the scale is a series called Beast Academy which they say, “When finished, our Beast Academy curriculum will train grade 2-5 math beasts.” Each book is rendered in a comic book style and created by Jason Batterson, Shannon Rogers, Kyle Guillet, and/or Chris Page and illustrated by Erich Owen who appears to have done killer work on things like the new Teen Titans, as well as the graphic novel Mail Order Ninja which I remember reading back in the day. Good stuff. I’ve not read any of these books myself, and considering the fact that they are more textbook + workbook than anything else, I doubt they’d make it onto public library shelves much of anywhere. Still, if you’re looking for a new math series, it might be worth your while to investigate these further.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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