Review of the Day: How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit On a Plane? by Laura Overdeck
How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit On a Plane? Answers to Your Most Clever Math Questions
By Laura Overdeck
Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves now
Geez. How I ended up in this position I’ll never know. Me. A born and bred liberal arts major. The kind of person who managed to go an entire four years in college avoiding any classes that had even the faintest whiff of math to them. I wasn’t one of those kids traumatized by it or anything. In many ways math was, for me, more of a non-starter. It didn’t figure into my worldview or daily life or really much of anything above and beyond the classes I was required to take to graduate. When I grew up I used some of it. Most of it? Not a jot. I became a children’s librarian and pretty much figured my time with math was over and done with. Fast forward to 2013 and suddenly I’m serving on a committee. Not just any committee either. A math committee (the Mathical Award). A committee dedicated towards getting good, fun, high-quality math books into the hands of kids. Hunhuna? Hubba wha? How did this happen? Who knows, but here I am and now I find that I not only like math books for kids, I’ve a nose for sniffing out the ones that are actually interesting. Little wonder that I recently picked up Laura Overdeck’s latest math-related fare How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit On a Plane? Picked it up, I say, and haven’t looked back since.
Some of you are looking at the cover of this book and rolling your eyes heavenward. Not because you don’t like math, but because you figure you’ve seen this kind of thing before. Something that declares that it makes math fun, huh? Lemme guess. You open it up and it has all the glitz and flair of your standard school textbook, with a dry as dirt text to match. Or, much worse, it tries too hard, filling its pages with a kind of forced gaiety, as if by acting excited it might transfer that feeling through the very fibers of the pages themselves. Those kinds of books come out every single year and they are, to put it plainly, intolerable. Well put aside your prejudices and give this book a second glance, my friends. In How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit On a Plane? Overdeck hands readers a wide variety of curious questions. “How many pieces of gum can stick me to the wall and hold me there?” “When will I be a billion second old?” “If I were as strong as an ant, how much could I pick up?” Her answers come complete with math, wittily presented, beautifully designed. At the end Overdeck provides “7 Slick Tricks to Amaze Your Friends” for a little mental math, as well as copious sources and backmatter. Math done right.
In many ways, it appears that Guinea Pigs has borrowed a page or two out of National Geographic’s playbook. I don’t know if you’re familiar with National Geographic’s books for kids but through much hard work and clever use of white space, NG has established itself as the go-to place for quickie facts. Whether they’re churning out joke books, early chapter series about animal rescues, or big hardcover beauties filled with lush full-color photos (this is National Geographic we’re talking about, after all) there’s something for everyone in those pages. And yet fascinatingly they’ve never even attempted books that discuss math. Not once, as far as I can determine. Into, what I can only describe as, a gaping void comes Laura Overdeck and her jam-packed guinea pigs. Like NG books there are abundant photographs to be seen here (though they’re more of the stock photo variety). And almost more importantly than that, like NG a clever book designer (in this case one Raphael Geroni) took pains to make the insides as enticing as possible. As a result, at the beginning of each page is a nicely delineated question portion, surrounded by pertinent images.
Consider now the case of Laura Overdeck. A rare bird, to say the least. Outfitted with a BA in astrophysics from Princeton University and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, her resume would not normally allow you to peg her as some kind of children’s book guru. And yet, even as I say this, the woman has pretty much cornered the market on children’s books that seamlessly integrate math into the everyday lives of children. With her Bedtime Math series, for example, she has worked to give math a natural space in a child’s brain. Math so casually created that a kid would never dream that you could go for years without coming up with such equations. In many ways Guinea Pigs feels like a natural output of the Bedtime Math series, with one important difference. Visually, the book is leaps and bounds better than the books that made Overdeck a hero to so many. Now I like the Bedtime Math books just fine, but even as I found the content intriguing I found the art and illustrations unmemorable. That’s part of what I like so much about this new book (series?). Not only do the questions confound in a right pleasing way, but the design of the pages make you want to keep turning them.
But let’s talk text for a moment here. I keep getting distracted by the images when what I should really be praising as well are the words that surround them. You can look as pretty as a picture all you want, but if your text is a snorefest don’t expect kids to follow you to the wide and wonderful world of mathamania. Overdeck splits her book into six chapters, each with a different nonfiction theme. The last chapter, “Now Do It In Your Head!” ups the ante, daring the kid readers to take their math to the next level. As for the questions in each chapter, I was reminded of the XKCD book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. This is essentially a younger, slightly less silly, book along the same lines. Some of the questions don’t require much outside information, but most require Overdeck to provide some research. For example, to the question “How many raindrops does it take to fill a glass of water?” we have to be told that a raindrop is 2 mm across with a radius of 1 mm. Overdeck then works out its volume and goes from there. Since this isn’t a textbook, Overdeck doesn’t make the reader figure out the math themselves but it would be easy to adapt this to a home or school (or fun, darn it) curriculum, if needs be. And I should probably note that some of the questions really don’t have much math to them at all. “Which wind blows faster, a tornado or a hurricane?” is answered by facts more than anything else. So there is a bit of filler here and there, that’s for sure.
It seems crazy to say, but I honestly feel that for all that we children’s librarians like to believe that we’re living in some kind of a golden age of children’s literature (particularly when it comes to nonfiction) math books for kids lag horribly behind the times. Why is this? It’s quite simple. To write a good math book you have to care about the material. And sad as it is to say, most writers aren’t math enthusiasts, for all that they can string two words together. That sometimes leaves the mathematicians to try to fill in the gaps, but without a true literary bent to fall back on, their books can sometimes come across as dry and bland. This is why we need more folks like Laura Overdeck. The math is good and the writing charming. Neither one of those two factors is ever a given. When you can run across them together, though, grab on with both hands and don’t let go. And when you give this book to an interested kid, don’t expect them to let go either.
On shelves now.
Still not so sure? Let this charming video for the book help in some way:
Now if someone would be so kind as to give this woman her own PBS show . . .
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2017, Reviews, Reviews 2017
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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