Readers: This is an update and consolidation of previous posts on this topic. Hopefully I’ve gotten all the resources in here!
It started one night when my seven-year-old daughter explained to her father how you can determine the number of faces in a geometric solid from the number of points. I’d ordered a Sir Cumference book from the library on the many recommendations I’d seen, and for the fact that my daughter was obsessed with knights.
It didn’t occur to me that this would be an efficient way to teach math. Since then, I’ve been on a quest for math stories.
First, a definition: What I’m calling math “stories” are books in which the story is more, or at least as important as the math it contains. I’m not confusing them with “story problems,” the bane of many a standardized test-taker. A math story is a really great story that happens to contain math.
It’s also a very effective way to spark interest in and understanding of math in elementary-aged kids.
The first books we tried, the wonderful Sir Cumference series, are picture books about medieval times peopled with wonderfully named characters: Lady Di of Ameter Geo of Metry, and of course Sir Cumference himself.
The books have the lush pictures and captivating storylines you’d expect from picture books, but they also teach math concepts in a deep way.
In learning about pi, that confusing number associated with circles, Radius (Sir C.’s son, of course) actually experiments with a pie. The shape of King Arthur’s table leads to a discussion of circles and their particular attributes.
The success of Sir Cumference led us to seek out more math stories. A friend recommended The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat. Author Theoni Pappas has written a number of math books for a range of ages and abilities. They all seem to center around the idea that if people just understood all of math’s lovable attributes, they’d love the discipline as well.
We instantly fell in love with Penrose. If you have a cat, you will recognize Penrose in an instant. He learns mathematics because his mistress (Pappas) is always looking at her math papers. So like any good cat, what does he do? He inserts himself between his mistress and the papers. Fun and learning follow.
The charm of Penrose is, first, that he is a real cat. Though the illustrations are in pen and ink, there’s a photo in the beginning of the book of the real Penrose, poised in mid-play amongst his mistress’s papers.
The fictional Penrose not only enjoys getting attention, but also gaining knowledge. He starts to wonder about what’s on the papers, and soon the numbers and shapes come alive and talk to him.
This is a consistent metaphor in the books, and is a good metaphor for what happens to a child charmed by Penrose. At the end of each story there is a small box with an intriguing question. My daughter, who screams in frustration at a page of math problems, took the initiative in finding paper and pencil to answer the first chapter’s conundrum.
We’re on to our third Pappas book now, hungrily lapping up Penrose’s forays into tessellation, prime numbers, and equiangular spirals.
We were on a roll. Someone else suggested The Number Devil. There are a couple of caveats about this book: First, this is a playful take on religion, with a Number Heaven/Hell and the Number Devils that live there, so beware if this doesn’t fit with your world view. Also, this book starts with the main character, Robert, having nightmares, and given that our household was being turned upside-down at that point with nighttime wakings, I was leery of adding more ideas for bad things that happen at night.
I decided, however, to give it a try, and it was a hit. Not only did Robert’s nightmares not scare my daughter, but the Number Devil soon invades the dreams and drives away all the bad thoughts. They are replaced by dreams of number theory, explained through colorful language and ever-changing scenery.
The book has a therapeutic as well as didactic approach: Robert’s fears of the big, scary world and also of his detested math teacher, Mr. Bockel, are replaced by musings about the beauty of numbers. By the end of the book, Robert becomes a number devil himself, having earned a place in Number Heaven (or Hell, depending on how you look at it) and a license to think about the cool stuff that number philosophers have thought about since ancient times.
This may all beg the question: What did my daughter get from this? Is she learning useful skills?
First, I have to say that all this reading will probably not translate directly to any increase in her testable numbers. Standardized tests look for mastery of skills; these books encourage excitement about ideas. Standardized tests focus on grade-level standards; these books throw that all out the window and figure kids should learn about the cool stuff… leave the boring, repetitive stuff for another day.
What math stories do is introduce kids to the big, enticing ideas that make all the work on boring stuff like multiplication facts worth the effort. A child who is excited by triangles is going to learn soon enough that having to pull out a calculator or multiplication chart over and over to remember 3×3 just delays the pay-off.
Math stories also teach math concepts in a deeper way, embedding them in a narrative that fits into the way children learn in the real world, through experience and need.
If you’re looking for math stories for older children, check out the British Murderous Maths series (which I’m happy to see is now available in the US) and Theoni Pappas’s The Joy of Mathematics, both of which teach the history and ideas behind the math that kids will need to tackle in late elementary and middle school.
- Living Math is a website full of great math resources
Here are various math stories that we read and enjoyed or that other readers have recommended: