31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Math Books for Kids
Today’s list is notable for being the first foray out of the purely picture book/board book realm. Each year I keep a keen eye out for math books, and not just simply because I serve on the Mathical Book Prize committee. You know, when I started out with Mathical about a decade ago, the state of math in children’s books was a sad, sorry state of affairs. These days? There are some remarkable titles being produced! And I must confess that when it comes to the middle grade fare, I’m missing a lot of what’s out there. So! Consider this merely a prelude for the Mathical Book Prize’s announcement in 2022. There will be some books from this list, I’ve no doubt, and others I completely failed to read. Still and all, isn’t it nice that there are so many math books that I can’t keep track of them all anymore?
2021 Math Books for Kids
Aftermath by Emily Barth Isler
Considering the fact that my kids have to participate in active shooter drills on a regular basis, it stands to reason that the plot of this book should touch on the reality behind it. Lucy and her family move to a town that experienced a massive school shooting a couple years before. Now entering the 8th grade, Lucy is the same age as the kids that witnessed and survived the shooting firsthand. And since no one really ever moves to this town, her status as the new kid is unique. Lucy, as it turns out, is living in the wake of her own family trauma. Her younger brother had a heart defect and died not long before her move. Now indulging in her love of math and joining an afterschool mime group, Lucy has a chance to make a new life for herself and for her classmates. It’s a dark premise but Isler keeps things nicely balanced throughout. Of course, for my part I was impressed by how well the author worked Lucy’s love of math into the basic text. It’s a tricky subject, and maybe I don’t agree with every choice the writer made, but on the whole it’s unique, full of math love, and emotionally balanced. Something to look out for then.
Bear Against Time by Jean-Luc Fromental, ill. Joelle Jolivet
Yeah, they sort of had me at the Harold Lloyd reference on the cover. This book is a fairly fascinating exploration of both the importance of maintaining a sense of making use of your time, but not going overboard with it. A bear (simply named Bear) has a terrible time getting where he needs to go. If he’s not sleeping in, he’s missing the bus. If he’s not late for gym, then he’s missing dinner. At last the family he lives with (humans one and all) decides to teach Bear how to tell time. At first the lessons are tricky but after a while Bear catches on. Suddenly he’s not only on time, he’s ahead of it. And in all his spare moments he’s filled himself up with a plethora of extracurricular activities. Naturally, this leads to burnout and in the end Bear goes on vacation, meets a beautiful bear that doesn’t wear a watch, and we are told that “For bears, just like for people, happiness is taking your time and listening to your heartbeat.” So essentially this is a book about making time in your day for “your heartbeat” while at the same time teaching you how to tell time (that’s where the math comes in). That odd duality is peculiar, and I could see some Americans finding it hard to grasp. Even so, listen to this book. Time is important. Taking time? Just as important.
Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Chaaya Prabhat
[Previously Seen On the Transcendent Holiday Books List]
Through part of Charlesbridge’s impressive “Storytelling Math” series, I found this particular title from the math-loving Ms. LaRocca to be both a fantastic patterns books and an interesting holiday title. In this celebration of Raksha Bandhan, youngest sibling Bina is determined to make bracelets for each of her three brothers. Vijay loves blue but doesn’t like green. Siddharth is fond of green but can’t stand orange. Arjun likes orange but is sick of blue. With three colors to work with, will Bina get the bracelets right? A “Cultural Note” at the end from Rajani explains that Raksha Bandhan, falling on the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shraavana (usually August), is a celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters. And the fact that it isn’t in a ton of picture books just shows how far we have to go.
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorrell, ill. Natasha Donovan
Every year we get a couple biographies of women working in the field of math. And with the exception of Katherine Johnson they all have one thing in common: They are white white white white white. So imagine my delight when I discovered this biography of a too little lauded female Cherokee aerospace engineer, written by a member of the Cherokee Nation. Bliss! Mary Golda Ross led an extraordinary life, but due to her government work, a lot of what she did remains suppressed. That’s a unique challenge for a picture book author to face, but Sorrell takes it on with apparent relish. As one of my co-workers pointed out, you should really see the backmatter. It’s something else! And on my part, I’m delighted to have something this cool looking to add to the possible contenders of the next Mathical Award.
Isobel Adds It Up by Kristy Everington, ill. A.G. Ford
This is a book that works particularly well if you forget what the cover looks like. One of the many things I’ve learned from participating on Mathical every year is that almost as important as a book that teaches math concepts is a book that instills in the child reader a love and respect for math. This can be done any number of ways, but the most effective is often simply showing a main character that’s an average kid who just happens to love math. Sounds simple, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack some years. And so part of what I liked so much about Isobel here is her unapologetic math love. The tension in this story doesn’t stem from her relationship with math. It comes from outside elements that prevent her from working on her math. And then, to top it all off, there’s the ending of the book which is about finding a buddy who shares your interests. This title is just so good-natured that anyone reading it will be bound to be at least a little intrigued by Isobel (and her newfound friend Bernadette)’s obsession.
Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! by Art Coulson, ill. Mardelyn Goodnight
[Previously Seen On the Transcendent Holiday Books List]
While we were all distracted with other things in our lives, Charlesbridge just swooped in and cornered the math-related picture book market. Cornered, heck. They’ve conquered it! You see, not only do their picture books in the “Storytelling Math” series really show math-related concepts in wonderful contexts, but they reach out and find authors and artists from a wide range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. In this particular case, Art Coulson is Cherokee and Madelyn Goodnight is of the Chickasaw Nation. The story itself couldn’t be simpler. Bo wants to help bring the homemade marbles he’s created (as big as bocce balls) to his family’s craft booth during the Cherokee National Holiday. Trouble is, he needs to find precisely the correct sized container to fit. That means wrangling with concepts like volume and capacity. A Glossary of Cherokee words and phrases, as well as additional information on the marbles and suggested math-related activities (created by Dr. Sharon Nelson-Barber of Rappahannock descent), round everything out. I’m a sucker for a clever solution, and the fact that this is a kind of math that can be so difficult to explain to kids didn’t hurt either. A marvelous (marble-ous?) addition to the series.
Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum by Natasha Yim, ill. Violet Kim
There is danger lurking within the pages of this book. The danger of hunger. Open it up and you’ll soon find delicious depictions of pork buns abound. Now much like the Dan Santat easy book The Cookie Fiasco, this story depicts the difficulty that comes when two items must serve three people. It’s Luna’s birthday and she and her family are going out for some Chinese dim sum. With six pork buns between them, splitting up the food should be easy for Luna and her two brothers. Alas, Luna drops one of the buns on the ground. Now there are five buns for three people. How on earth do you divide five into three evenly? The answer is a smart and very basic look at the practical applications of dividing. And because this book is part of Charlesbridge’s “Storytelling Math” series, you’re going to get a nice explanation at the end of how to “explore the math” with child readers.
Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryan Mirzakhani by Megan Reid, ill. Aaliya Jaleel
Interesting! A lot of female mathematicians get slotted into the ancient past (ala Nothing Stopped Sophie or literally anything about Ada Lovelace). And if they’re a bit more recent, the book has to do with coding or computer science in some way. Maryan Mirzakhani was born in 1977 (pardon me while I freak out over the fact that there’s a historical picture book about someone born a year before I was) and worked in the field of Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry. In other words, real friggin’ math. She was also the first woman and the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal in mathematics (in 2014). She died in 2014 at forty of breast cancer, but this book does her true honors. Author Megan Reid got very interested in the fact that Maryam was both a mathematician and a painter. In this way, she has a smart way of approaching her subject. There’s no fake dialogue that I could find, and how can you resist her “magic wand theorem”? A clever look at the intersection between art and math for even the youngest of ages.
Molly and the Mathematical Mysteries: Ten Interactive Adventures in Mathematical Wonderland by Eugenia Cheng, ill. Aleksandra Artymowska
A complex lift-the-flap book for older readers. When Molly walks into her bedroom one morning she finds a small invitation waiting for her on the floor. Thanks to its appearance, her entire world turns inside out (sometimes literally) as she travels through different mathematical concepts from Latin Squares and Paradoxes to Fractions and Number Grids. It’s a rather delightful little story, all the more so since at the end it pulls this surprise twist that I certainly didn’t see coming. This is one of those books that comes awfully close to being labeled an “activity book” (a forbidden kind of title to buy in a library) but never quite crosses over. If you’re looking for one of those “fun” math books, this one actually is. And the story ain’t half bad either, for that matter.
Much Ado About Baseball by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Chloe Dijon
Being the only girl on a new baseball team is tough enough, but Trish never expected to be playing alongside rival math prodigy Ben. Can the two become friends in spite of their competition or will it take a bit of magic? I am constantly on the lookout for sports sports sports! Trouble is, they’re actually rather hard to find. So to find a book that combines baseball, math, and Shakespeare in equal parts is rather amazing. Though I read Rajani’s previous companion book to this one (Midsummer’s Mayhem), I don’t think you need to have read it to appreciate this. And to confess, I’m a bit of a nerd about the math in books forwarding the plot and being good. This book incorporates it expertly. You can read my interview with Rajani about the book here.
1 Smile 10 Toes by Nelleke Verhoeff
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
Mix-and-Match books are nothing new, and indeed I mentioned Verhoeff’s other book Red Hat, Pink Books on the previously posted Board Books List. What impresses me about this title, though, is its capacity for hammering home counting in a fun way. The book isn’t presenting itself like that necessarily, but you’d be blind not to see the possibilities. With every turn of the bottom half of the book you get to count and recount a number of different toes, feet, scales, ankles, etc. The top is the same with different numbers of ears and wrinkles and so on and such. If a parent were to enjoy flipping through this with a kid, then the two could count together the new numbers as they present themselves. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen counting and mix-and-match books used together before. Brilliant!
Ten Animals in Antarctica: A Counting Book by Moira Court
Let’s count some animals living in the coldest, windiest, driest continent in the world. From one leopard seal to ten vermilion sea stars, this bouncy book begs to be read aloud. We are always looking for excellent non-fiction for the youngest of our readers and this one is kinda terrific. Done with printmaking and collage, the illustrations are clear and colorful, spotlighting each animal with a cool zippiness. It works beautifully as a counting book–the figures are easy to count. And it also stands out as a very simple introduction to animals you will find in Antarctica.
We Are One: How the World Adds Up by Susan Hood, ill. Linda Yan
Counting books become rote after a while. Expected. You begin to yearn to see how someone might shake ‘em up a little. Now what’s so interesting about the latest from Hood & Yan is a very early statement in the text that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That little nubbin of philosophy drives the rest of the book, and you can practically see little minds expanding as it does. Interestingly the book is split into a younger text up top and a much older nonfiction text below. We see this in books all the time but this is the first time I’ve really wondered if that means that you could do a readaloud with your kids, reading one part to one and another part to another. And the lower, older portion really does go in all sorts of different places. One moment it’s discussing the origin of the phrase “pieces of eight” and next it’s laying out the rules of baseball. As for the counting (which is supposed to be the point, yes?) I think the book is meant to place numbers within a variety of different contexts. Because, as they say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Welcome to Shape School! by Nicola Slater
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
Chronicle is calling this series the “Beginning Baby” series and it’s clear they put some work into the books. I’ve already mentioned how impressed I was with the aforementioned Smile, Baby. In this next book, the back cover tells you that you’ll be encountering the subjects “Shapes”, “Storytelling”, and “Fine Motor Skills”. The cover, meanwhile, looks like no other board book I’ve seen before. Tabs abound, popping up not just at the top of the book (I’ve seen that before) but curving around the sides as well. That means that you can easily skip to your favorite shape if you want to. It also makes turning the pages with your chubby little baby hands a whole lot easier. On each page you are encouraged to count the number of shapes or maybe press them or tap them. Some of these shapes are easy and some are a bit more complicated. The page with the squares, for example, seemingly contains a massive number. Other pages, like the ovals, are a bit simpler. Characters here are colorful anthropomorphized animals and the whole venture has a jaunty feel. Shapes are math, and you’ll have no doubt of it after pointing and counting through this book.
When I Am Bigger: Counting Numbers Big and Small by Maria Dek
Hang out with mathematicians long enough and you begin to see what it is that they like about picture books that contain math. Patterns? Always good. A wide variety of concepts? Keen. But of course as a librarian I like a book to make sense as a whole. The nice thing about Dek’s title is that you have a chance to count different things for different reasons (and different numbers), thereby putting the whole counting thing into practice. Some of the things that you count in this book, like the 37 snowballs, are clear and cannot be debated. Other things, like the “53 tiny neighbors” may prove more difficult. One element that may bug folks is the fact that the numbers of things that you count don’t increase at a rate that makes all that much sense. If there’s a pattern, I don’t know it. Some pattern-minded folks may mind. For others, the deep, sumptuous watercolors (Dek hails from Białowieża) will more than make up for it.
Can’t get enough of those numbers and numerals? Then check out my previous years lists!
And here’s what else is on the docket 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2021, Booklists
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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