31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Math Books for Kids
Honestly, I don’t know how it happened, but by this point I’ve been serving on the Mathical Book Prize committee for something like five or six years now. And you know what? I love it! Everybody loves an underdog and there’s no genre of children’s book more underdoggy than those that engage with math. Indeed, I’ve grown to really appreciate books that can combine the expository nature of math with literature in some way. Having done this for a while, I’m noticing a small but sure uptick in math books each and every year. They’ll never be mainstream, but these beauties shine in their own way.
2020 Math Books for Kids
Baby Beats: Let’s Learn 4/4 Time by Ellen Stubbings
Baby Beats: Let’s Learn ¾ Time by Ellen Stubbings
Baby Beats: Let’s Learn 2/4 Time by Ellen Stubbings
Ingenious. Let’s begin with some board books, shall we? The Baby Beats books advertise themselves as providing, “a child’s first music lesson, enhancing his or her ability to recognize notes, beats, measures, and songs.” To do this, the book equates counting beats with the syllables of animals, and finally pairs everything together into a familiar song. For example, at the end of 4/4 Time a band performs Mary Had a Little Lamb, making it very clear how some notes are longer because they take up more syllables. It’s rather clever and darned if there isn’t math at work in here in the counting as well. A book that equates counting and music in a practical way that young learners can actually understand. Not easy to do, I don’t need to tell you.
The Blunders: A Counting Catastrophe! by Christina Soontornvat, ill. Colin Jack
Before they leave the house, the ten Blunder kids are told by their mom to not leave anyone behind. So what happens when they only count nine? Oo! This combines two of my favorite things! Classic folktales updated and math. This is a good old-fashioned fool tale, and illustrating it with the art of Colin Jack (who is never not good) was a clever way to go about things. Not only do the kids foolishly count forwards in the normal way, but they count backwards, and by twos and by threes. Beautifully laid out, funny, and kids will get to feel smarter than the characters, which is always a nice plus.
Dirt Cheap by Mark Hoffmann
I consider myself a big time fan of the kooky premise. This book delivers. Birdie wants a fancy soccer ball but it costs quite a bit of cash. When the narrator suggests that Birdie sell something, the obvious thing to buy is dirt. Initially the price is $25 a bag, which is a tad high. When that price is lowered to $0.25, the bags start flying. In one shot you get a magnificent accounting of the many different combinations of coins that can total twenty-five cents. Soccer ball finally in hand, there’s just one problem. Where do you play when all the dirt came out of your own yard? While the books plays loose and fast with precisely how long it takes for grass seed to take root, on the whole I love this madcap consideration of supply and demand. The Gift of the Magi ending also gives it a little kick. Consider handing this to the math teacher that’s covering coins and how much they can be worth in different combinations.
Dozens of Doughnuts by Carrie Finison, ill. Brianne Farley
Okay, so I need to write a small justification for this one. Essentially, I like the counting in this book just fine, but what I really love is that it shows a whole bunch of critters being extra greedy and then (wait for it) actually feeling bad about that fact!!! One of my pet peeves is the picture book character that lets other characters walk all over them. Not because I find the situations unrealistic but because I find them TOO realistic. I want justice! I want revenge! I want to not identify quite so closely with the doormat character. Well, in this book a perfectly nice bear named LouAnn (I mean, right there, good name) keeps making these shockingly deliciously illustrated doughnuts as her voracious “friends” keep inviting themselves over to eat ‘em up. At the end she gets rightfully pissed off and they come back to make it up to her by essentially drowning her in fresh doughnuts. I like the writing, the story, the art, the doughnuts, the counting, the whole kerschmozzle. Extra Bonus: This book shows how twelve doughnuts can be split evenly between 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 characters.
Emmy Noether, the Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of by Helaine Becker, ill. Kari Rust
Oh, my goodness gracious me! I came THIS close to missing this book this year. Slot this one into the good math-related picture book biography section. This book doesn’t disappoint. First of all, it eschews the usual pitfalls such books fall into far too often. No fake dialogue, no fictionalized scenes for dramatic effect, NONE of that! Instead, it’s a fun recounting of the facts surrounding Emmy’s life. At the beginning you get a checklist of the qualities girls were supposed to embody in the late 19th century. That list is paralleled on the opposite page by all the things Emmy couldn’t do (the usual “feminine” talents) and what she could (puzzles and math). She managed to sit in on the local university’s classes, and attend when it changed its rules and let women in. When Einstein’s theory of relativity had a hole in it, Emmy was able to use the field of algebra called “invariance” to solve it. And when the Nazis rode to power, Einstein helped set her up in America. Oh, and did we mention that she invented Noether’s theorem, and worked on “ideal theory” which has helped underlie computer science today? The art and writing together in this book are great, and I was very impressed by the mathematical explanations. I wouldn’t say a kid would understand everything, but it at least may make some want to learn more so that they CAN understand it. 2020 has seen a plethora of biographies for kids of individuals that weren’t attention hogs, so this book would pair nicely with The Only Woman in the Room. Or Nothing Stopped Sophie for that matter. So much fun.
The Language of the Universe: A Visual Exploration of Mathematics by Colin Stuart, ill. Ximo Abadía
Homeric. The world does not lack for oversized colorful children’s books filled with knowledge on a wide variety of subjects. Yet most of those books contain pretty rote subject matter. History. Science. La de dah. This book goes in a slightly different direction. It’s Mission: To show kids how math is infused into every possible aspect of the world around them. To convey this succinctly, mathematical concepts must be simplified. And generally speaking, Stewart does a top notch job. I might have liked some ideas in here to be from women or people of color, but generally speaking he’s capable of making comprehensible the complicated. Abadía faces the equally awkward challenge of taking this information and making it all fit on a page AND look nice in the process. In the end, kids will not be bored paging through this book. They may latch on to parts they already know (Newton’s Law or binary digits) and then explore from there. This is a book that it would be easy to dip in and out of. Infinitely (ha!) helpful.
Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics by Laurie Wallmark, ill. Yevgenia Nayberg
It is hard, it is hard, it is oh so hard to write picture book biographies of mathematicians. Part of what I appreciated about this one is the fact that it takes care to (A) Not use fake dialogue and (B) apply Sophie’s discoveries directly to their contemporary uses (WiFi, astronomy, etc.). There’s a nice Author’s Note, Timeline, and Bibliography at the back of the book, but the part that made my heart go pitter-pat the most was the selection on “Sophie Kowalevski’s Name and the Cyrillic Alphabet.” No kid is going to get a kick out of it, but I for one appreciated the mention and clarification. I trust the book that much more, seeing how the author came to one decision or another. Who knew that 2020 would turn out to be such a strong year for picture book biographies of female mathematicians?
Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Archana Sreenivasan
Faced with a conundrum of how to pay his way at an inn, a clever boy uses binary numbers in an eclectic manner to win the day. I’m just charmed by this book. It’s a folktale that teaches binary in an exceedingly clever way. It could well be that the book is almost too clever for its own good, but honestly it reminded me a lot of that classic One Grain of Rice by Demi. Rajani LaRocca is probably best known for her middle grade fiction, like Midsummer Madness. When I interviewed her on this blog recently alongside a cover reveal of her latest (math-related) middle grade novel, she offered this stirring defense of writing mathy books. “I’ve loved math—its elegance, its concreteness, and its objectivity—from when I was a kid. I love how math is found everywhere, but particularly in the natural world. And I particularly love math puzzles, which invite us to discover tricks to solve them. I’ve always been a fan of stories with kids using their smarts to solve puzzles or riddles, so it’s not a surprise that now I’m writing them myself.” Good writing, fun art, and a slick incorporation of math into fiction.
Shape Up, Construction Trucks! by Victoria Allenby
Hey, shape books are math books too. And if you’re gonna go all out, why not just throw a couple construction vehicles into the mix? Allenby’s book is almost too good for its very simple premise. Essentially, you’re just looking at some (remarkably detailed, high-resolution) photos of construction equipment and finding the natural shapes in them. And just to up the ante, it rhymes. As the Kirkus review pointed out, you could do a whole storytime and sing this book to the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” song (which I always did with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) and make a whole construction production out of it!
Two Dogs on a Trike by Gabi Snyder, ill. Robin Rosenthal
Some serious side-eye going on in this book. With gentle, rhyming text the reader joins a sneaky cat and a cadre of canines as they increase one-by-one. Midway through the book, the cat reveals itself, the dogs retreat (counting steadily downward) until only the cat remains. Then it starts counting up again (but check out who’s stalking them). Maybe it’s not the most complicated way to show counting both up and down, but it’s as efficient as it is amusing. I found myself growing increasingly fond of both the art and the writing as the story continued. Finding good math books for the youngest of readers can be difficult in a given year, but this does a stand up and bark job.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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